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How to start a conversation—and why it matters

When a friend or loved one is facing adversity, it’s natural to want to cheer them up, distract them, or avoid the topic altogether. Those responses are well-intentioned, but they may be the opposite of what your friend actually needs. According to Sheila Heen, co-author of Difficult Conversations, starting a real dialogue about what your friend is going through may be the most helpful thing you can do.

Perhaps you’re hesitant because you don’t want to say the wrong thing or remind them of their problems. In fact, saying something—anything—lets them know that you’re thinking about them and you care. Tiptoeing around the elephant in the room won’t make it leave. Acknowledging that elephant is the first step toward kicking it out.

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1

Don’t put it off

There will never be a perfect moment or an exactly right phrase for starting a conversation. If you’re thinking about your friend or loved one, that’s reason enough to ask them how they’re doing. You don’t need to be prepared, and it’s okay to be nervous. And yes, it might be uncomfortable—but so what? Recognize that possibility and go for it anyway.

2

Start the conversation—even if you don’t know all the details

You might not know exactly what your friend or loved one is going through, but you do know they’re hurting. Just checking in with them can help, even if you don’t have the full story. Ask, “How are you doing?” Put your hand on their shoulder and say, “I’m grateful for our friendship and I’m here if you want to talk.”

If you have more details about what they’re going through, you can be more explicit: “Hey, I’ve been thinking of you. What are you and the kids doing this summer?” “How are you holding up without your mom?” “How are you coping with Sam being in the hospital?” Try to be sensitive about your surroundings when you ask—they may not feel comfortable talking if they’re with a large group or around their kids.

However you phrase it, just starting a conversation signals to your friend that they have a safe space to share their feelings, whatever they may be.

3

Acknowledge their emotions without trying to fix things

As Heen says, “When someone is hurting, and we pretend they aren’t, then we’re not really seeing them. When we fail to share what’s most important to us, like our feelings, we detach ourselves from others and damage our relationships.” If a friend or loved one shares their problems, make space for them to vent without judgment. Let them do the talking. Listen, ask questions, and acknowledge what they’re saying. Don’t feel the need to offer solutions—that’s not always helpful. Instead, say, “This must be really hard for you” or “I wish you weren’t going through this—but please know you’re not alone.”

Sometimes, they may not want to say anything at all. That’s okay. Your presence—just sitting there quietly together—can be enough to make them feel loved and understood.

4

Leave the door open

As your conversation winds down, remind them that you’re always available to listen. Make a commitment to be there for them. Follow up—send a text, drop a card in the mail—and make some plans together.

The simple act of starting a conversation with a loved one speaks volumes about how much you care about them when they’re struggling. It doesn’t have to be perfect. Just hearing your concern can mean a great deal.

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