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How to Help Someone in an Emotional Crisis

Viola enjoys passing on the nuggets of wisdom she's collected. She has made eye contact with Robert Redford and chatted with Julia Roberts.

Listening is a true gift.

Listening is a true gift.

Above All: Don't Try to Fix It

One of the most important things you can do when someone pours out a problem to you is to avoid the (almost irresistible) urge to come up with a way to make the problem go away. You will almost certainly offer suggestions of things you would do to fix the problem. However, this is not YOUR problem and the person you are speaking to is not YOU. You, the speaker, have an entirely different set of life experiences, needs and feelings around the particular situation. When you offer suggestions, advice or any other sentence that starts with, "Why don't you just...." or, "You need to..." - RESIST!

1. Engage in Active Listening

Put down your cell phone and angle your body toward the person speaking. Listen with your eyes and your ears and try not to interrupt. Nodding and an occasional, "Uh- huh" is OK, but for the most part, let the speaker speak. If they pause, resist the urge to finish the silence with your viewpoint. The goal here is to let the person get the story out of their crowded head and into the vast openness of space. Allow them to hear what they are thinking. Listening well can help them do that.

A good listener allows room for the speaker to process.

A good listener allows room for the speaker to process.

2. Ask Insightful Questions

When the speaker has paused long enough, ask, "Can I give you some feedback?" If she gives you permission, ask a probing question, such as, "What are you feeling around this situation?" or "What are you considering doing about the situation?" Other questions could include a variation of, "What are your options?" or "What has worked for you in the past when you encountered this situation?" If she repeated a particular word often during the telling of the story, you might say, "I heard you say the word, 'terrifying,' three times. Tell me more about what is terrifying about this." The most important part of this stage is to get the speaker to talk about the feelings she is experiencing, not just the details of the situation. Once she has expressed herself, ask, "How do you feel now?" This can help the speaker see that the intensity of her emotions has subsided and she can talk more clearly about options.

Avoid offering suggestions about how the person "must feel."

Avoid offering suggestions about how the person "must feel."

3. Find the Feeling

This "Feelings Wheel" can help you or your friend pinpoint the emotion she might be feeling. Often, getting past the details of the circumstance to the real emotion will bring tears and release. At this point, let her cry. Don't offer tissues! This sends the message, "Stop crying!" and will hinder the healing process.

Other Things to Avoid

In addition to "Don't Fix It," several other listening mistakes can stifle the process of allowing the speaker to move from crisis to catharsis.

  • Don't minimize. This is a big deal to the speaker so avoid saying things like, "Why do you have to get so upset about that?" or worse, "Big deal!"
  • Don't make it about you. Some people can get wrapped up in how the problem affects them. Try not to switch the conversation over to you or how you would deal with it. If you have experienced similar feelings or emotions, it's OK to empathize but don't monopolize!
  • Don't finish the speaker's sentence or fill in his pauses. Let him have the whole floor.
  • Don't shame the speaker! Avoid comments such as, "That's silly," or "Normal people don't think like that." Allow her to have her feelings without judging them.
  • Don't villainize the perpetrator. Sometimes, the speaker may say terrible things about the person causing her pain. Don't jump in the ring with her. She may be back in love again tomorrow and if you joined in the previous evening's stoning, you may be the one on the outs.

To Do and Not To Do

Here's a hypothetical situation and two ways to approach it.


Mary: Oh, Jane, I just can't believe how mean Carol is being! I invited her over yesterday and she never even showed up! She hates me, I just know it!

Jane: Wow! I always knew she was a user-loser. Why don't you text her and tell her to take a flying leap?

Mary: She's my best friend and I just can't believe she'd be so thoughtless! And I even let her borrow my car two weeks ago. She's such a, a . . .

Jane: A turncoat! She's a user-loser, turncoat, boyfriend-stealing good-for-nothing. She borrowed my sweater a month ago and has not returned it yet. And, she showed up at the concert last Saturday and sat next to my boyfriend. She didn't even talk to me once!

Mary: Ugh!! I can't believe I told her she was my best friend last month. That's the last time I pinky-swear with anyone, ever!


Mary: Oh, Jane, I just can't believe how mean Carol is being! I invited her over yesterday and she never even showed up! She hates me, I just know it!

Jane: Really? What makes you think she hates you?

Mary: I know she hates me because she didn't even call. She just wants me to be her puppet so she can feel superior to me.

Jane: Huh. I hate it when people don't call when I'm expecting them.

Mary: Me too! Well, she did text me, but that's the wimpy way out. I would never text to tell someone I wasn't coming after they invite me somewhere.

Jane: What feelings come up for you when you get a text instead of a call?

Mary: I feel unimportant. Like they can't even take a second to make a personal call. She said she had to take her cat to the emergency vet. Sounds like an excuse to me.

Jane: That could be. Let's think of some other reasons why she might not have come over. Could it have been her cat? Have you known her to lie to you before?

Mary: Not really. It's not really like her. Maybe I'll call her later and see what happened.

Jane: That sounds like a great idea. Thanks for sharing this with me. I hope it all works out.

A good listener can help save a life.

A good listener can help save a life.

Beware the Danger Zone

If your friend says she is thinking of harming herself or others, ask if you can get together then get professional help. If at all possible, don't leave her alone. Call 911 or a suicide hotline. Ask your friend to make this promise to you: "Before I do anything to hurt myself, I will call you first." If the calls comes, take immediate action even if you think they may be crying wolf.

Are you a good listener?