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When we see people in need of help, we will want to help them. That’s natural, we have compassion built into us as social beings. But when we see people in need, especially when they start talking to us, what we think as helpful may not be helpful to them. The way we should deal with their upset is very different from the way we deal with our upset internally. For instance, when we experience trouble, we will try to find a way out, find solutions to match the problems. When it comes to other people’s issues, they first want to be understood, heard and seen, before any other process happen; rather than be problem-solved. I will detail a 2-step process to begin the helping relationship with a troubled friend.

Step One: Hold the Space

Be present, curious, understanding and compassionate. This is a skill we get drilled on repetitively in our training as therapists, counsellors or life coaches. We learn to hold the space for the other person to unfold. Think of the last time you were really interested in getting to know someone because that person intrigues you. You already know how to do this. These are some of the many strategies that we professionals use:

  1. Reflect the meaning – reflect the essence of what is being communicated as we experience the other person fully.
  2. Communicate empathy – let the other person know that we can relate to what he feels, because somehow we have encountered such feelings before. Contexts can be different, but feelings are universal.
  3. Be curious, don’t judge – ask questions to gather more about this issue and let the person tell the story.
  4. Show up and be real – be yourself skillfully, and disclose what you truly feel about the situation, but not to give any advice or judgments.

Through these strategies, the other person would know that we are genuinely concerned, and we understood them. And sometimes, this is all they need from us, just for one other person in this world to know that they are struggling – an immense therapeutic outlet.

Step Two: Let them Decide where to go from here

After holding the space for the other person, for more complex issues, the other person may need and will be receptive to a more involved conversation. Generally, these are the 3 ways the conversation could turn out:

  1. “I can handle it eventually” problems: For these problems, the other person just needs someone to talk to. If we hold the space well, that will clarify the person’s thoughts and give comfort to the person. We have done our helping role here. No advice needed, therapy done.
  2. “I’m lost, confused and torn” problems: In this context, the other person is probably torn between options or even have no idea how to move forward. But the problem is potentially manageable. In this context, advice may expected from us, before which we should always ask for permission to advice. Then, give your opinions and thoughts, some of which may be taken, others may not. Then disengage, while holding the space all the time.
  3. “This is totally hopeless” problems: Sometimes, people encounter problems that are too large to handle, and they give up hope. This is when people start showing self-defeating thoughts. Sometimes, we cannot see a way out for them too. In these situations, we help by shining positive light of hope, and trust that they have the internal resources to cope through. Highlight the good things they have been doing well in moving this problem and ask them what could they possibly explore from here (extracted from solution-focused therapy). Do positive reframe and highlight what positive outcomes they can perceive at this point, flip the problem to an asset (extracted from neurolinguistic programming).

Of course, there are a range of other problem types, which needs different strategies and some can be very complex to explain. Most importantly, bear in mind that in many conversations, if we are highly skillful in holding the space for the other, we can already see a shift in other person. That could be all they ask for.

Original writings by The Realist, inspired by encounters in professional work in life coaching, physical therapy and PhD research.

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