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"Being there for a friend doesn't mean you have to have all the answers," says Linda Hovanessian, a life coach and psychotherapist based in Thornhill, Ont.
"Just knowing that they can count on you to be there, even if it's just to listen, is of great assistance," she says.
Giving great advice starts with simply being present. Often you can help your friends find the answers they need within themselves. For some pointers on how to offer helpful guidance, follow Hovanessian's five tips to help you guide your friends to their own solutions.
1. Be an active listener
Ask your friend to explain her problems and listen with the intent of hearing her out rather than planning what you're going to say.
"Listen with the curiosity of caring, not prying – which means that you ask questions to help open up new worlds of possibilities for your friend," says Hovanessian.
As we worry about them, issues can become overly complicated in our minds, but just by stating them out loud our problems tend to become a little bit simpler. Your friend will feel far less alone as you empathize with her. Your questions will also help her see things in a different way and may present opportunities that she may have felt were impossible.
2. Believe in your friend
Even if you can't relate to your friend's problems, chances are her emotions – frustration, anger, disappointment or helplessness – are familiar to you. During these times, hearing encouragement can have a contagious effect.
"Firstly, we need to open up a space within ourselves to hear them without judgment or preconceived ideas, and know that they are greater and more powerful than their situation, no matter what it is," says Hovanessian.
Empower your friend to change her attitude by reminding her of a time she overcame a different difficult issue.
3. Ask caring questions
Only your friend will know what she truly needs to do, but you can help prompt her in the right direction.
"Ask genuinely caring questions that will help them reach their own answers," says Hovanessian. "By doing this, you will be giving them the message that they are capable of solving their own issues, even if the answer is not what you think it ‘should' be."
Resist the urge to change your friend's ideas by offering your own opinions. Rather than telling your friend you think she should leave her partner, for example, explain to her that she doesn't seem happy to you. Ask her what keeps her in the relationship.
4. Advise within your limits
Sometimes big problems are best left to the professionals. In those cases, you can still be an active listener and offer your empathy, but to help your friend find the support she is looking for you may have to nudge her in the right direction.
"Depending on the nature of the issue, this may mean you need to do a little research yourself in order to help point them in the right direction – perhaps by going to the bookstore or library and looking up self-help books," says Hovanessian.
If the problem is much larger than your friend feels she can address on her own, suggest a counsellor.
"Rather than saying ‘You need professional help,' which could probably put your friend on the defensive, you could say something to the effect of ‘I read about a person who had similar issues and they seemed to have been helped by going to therapy,'" suggests Hovanessian.
5. Help create a plan for change
After you've worked together to hatch out your friend's emotions and have discussed the possible options for change, it's time to put it all into a plan of action. Make the plan as focused as possible.
"Coming up with a goal is important," says Hovanessian. "Have them draw up a timeline for the changes and help them break the changes down into the tiniest, most manageable steps."
A clear vision combined with a path to those goals and the added support of friends and family members will facilitate a change in the best way possible.
You don't have to be a fountain of wisdom to help your friend find the answers to a problem. Simply listen actively, ask caring questions and offer continuous encouragement. Often, the biggest obstacle on a path for change is the critic inside of us.
"You can guarantee that their inner critic or judge will try to stand in their way of progress," says Hovanessian. "Encourage them to follow through if they slip, so you can help them once they have decided upon a plan."
Read more articles like this in Relationships.