What Can I Say or Do to Help a Friend Who is Suffering?

The question of how to help a friend or loved one is being asked more frequently given the abundant grief and loss we’re experiencing. We so want to help others, give comfort, or reduce pain, somehow, someway. And yet, the best answer is to start by not saying or doing anything. The best answer is to start by authentically listening.

What is authentic listening?

Authentic listening is a mighty tool of caring and service.

Undervalued, listening is the ultimate love language. It’s quiet, slow, modest, and requires our time and single-minded attention. Maybe that’s why it’s underused. Loud, showy, busyness is much more valued today with quick fixes and a plentitude of platitudes. 

Authentic listening is often the only thing needed to help someone.

When someone listens to  our experience and our emotions in a safe space, we feel truly loved and validated. Often, saying our problems out loud illuminates the illusive solutions and because these solutions are custom-made, they are embraced more enthusiastically than to advice given by others.

Authentic listening provides safe space.

The listener lends themselves to us for a while, giving us their full attention, without distraction. Their purpose is to validate, not judge; understand, not fix. Hesitating at first, we relax into speaking truth as the person “just” listens without interruptions, unnecessary questions, or commentary. 


Authentic listening is a conscientious decision made in the moment.

It doesn’t happen by accident because it requires us to deliberately turn down the noise of our thoughts, questions, and advice while turning up our sensitivity to what this person is saying and feeling. Distractions are turned off and quiet patience is turned on.

Authentic listening is a magical experience.

Consider the last time you experienced authentic listening, as the listener or the recipient. You’ll remember it because they are rare, special moments. There is a heart-to-heart connection that can be transformative for both people. Given how good it feels and how well it works, we have to wonder why we don’t make it happen more often.

How do I listen authentically?

Authentic listening uses these phrases: 

  • “Tell me more…”
  • “This must be really hard…”
  • “I want to make sure I understand…”
  • “Is this what you’re saying…”
  • “What has this been like for you…”

Authentic listening avoids these phrases:

  • “I understand how you feel…”
  • “When that happened to me, I…”
  • “What you need to do is just…”
  • “Have you tried…”
  • “Just look on the bright side…”

Authentic listening takes practice and it's worth it.

Authentic listening doesn’t come easily and requires intentional practice. The result is having the most precious gift you can give to others when there are no words to be said. And from your listening may come a very customized answer of what service can be done.

Today, make a decision to authentically listen to one person close to you. Researchers find most of us listen for about 18 seconds before interrupting and taking over the conversation. Try to stretch that to 30 seconds or even a full minute. Observe what happens when you take your turn to truly listen before talking.