Speaking to a distressed friend

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How your friend might respond

Sometimes you might worry about the response that you could get from friend/colleague if you were to ask an “Are you OK?” question.
You might get a negative response, OR you might not.

But if someone has genuinely asked how you are, and you trust that they will listen without judgement and they are not jumping in with solutions, then it is less likely that you would respond negatively. Even if your colleague doesn’t respond how you would like, they will at least be aware that you made an attempt and they may remember this and approach you at another time to speak about things.

It can be bruising to have your attempts at understanding brushed aside but don’t let one situation prevent you from ever broaching the subject again with a friend. Learn from the brush-off, try a different tone or phrasing and maybe experiment with listening and asking questions in the right environment or context.

  • Don’t take the responses personally!
  • Things take time and you may have triggered something that will happen later.
  • A negative response could mean you are on to something
  • You can’t be a perfect questioner every time!
  • Persevere. Just because you don’t know whether you helped someone, doesn’t mean you can’t help next time.
  • Do you want someone to help you if you have a problem?
Response from your friend What this means How you should feel about it
Unable to articulate an answer to the question For some of your friends it could be extremely difficult for them to acknowledge what they are feeling Even if you didn’t get much information from them you have still indicated your concern. They may at a later stage speak to you when they’ve gathered their own thoughts
Relief You have probably helped already by simply asking the question and showing that you have noticed something about them. Listen to their responses and see if that prompts some morequestions that you can ask
Negative response, e.g. anger, irritated, annoyed. This may mean that you are on to something. Your questioning has maybe hit the mark! For some people, the outcomes of dealing with psychological distress means that they don’t sleep well, or look after themselves, and this can manifest in emotions like anger and irritation. They could also be feeling very overwhelmed. Know that you have indicated to them that you are concerned even if they weren’t yet ready to accept it. You may have triggered them to think about their mental health and they may at a later stage start to act. You may not have witnessed progress but you should feel that you have shown concern and that is a really good thing.
Latching on to you for more conversation and assistance You have probably identified a friend who recognises they need a bit of help If this feels OK for you then you can continue to gather some information about the problem and come up with some ideas TOGETHER.If you feel too overwhelmed by their need then you can suggest alternative ways for them to get some help e.g. “I’m not an expert in this area, so maybe you should think about seeing a GP/family doctor/counsellor etc. I’ve done that in the past (I had anotherfriend/family member who did that in the past) and it seemed toreally help? I’m happy to help you arrange that if you want?”
Answers your questions You have given your friend an opportunity to say what is going on for them. Your questioning went really well. Try some more and make sure you LISTEN to what they are saying.
Embarrassment, humiliation Sometimes your friend may be thinking that the problem is their own fault. This can be particularly problematic in some situations, like when someone is the victim of abuse, harassment, sexting,  sexuality concerns, etc. Assure your friend that you are there for them. If it is not their fault, then assure them of this (e.g. abuse, harassment) and that they are not responsible for other people’s behaviour.
What do you care! Anger and distrust can indicate someone’s distress. Respond that you do care, that is why you wish to help. Do not return the anger, try and remain calm and remember that you have given them a genuine sign of your concern which they may react to later. You have indicated that you do care.