Helping A Friend in Crisis

You pick up the phone. A friend of yours is on the other end. You sense almost immediately that something is wrong. Your friend seems to want to talk but is embarrassed. You feel you were called because your help was wanted, but it is hard for your friend to reach out and tell you all that’s wrong.

The problem could be anything. Perhaps it’s marriage trouble and there’s been a terrible fight, or one mate may have left or is having an affair. Maybe your friend’s teenager is pregnant, or there’s a long-term illness, or loss of a job. Maybe there’s even been the death of a close relative or friend. The question is how can you help?

1. You first need to MAKE CONTACT WITH YOUR FRIEND IN CRISIS. It’s better if you can be face to face. Then let your friend know that you’re really there by focusing your whole attention on him or her. You should face your friend, sit close, and look into his or her face. In those early minutes, reach out and touch your friend's hand or, better yet, give a hug. Focusing on your friend shows you are there to listen and that you really care.

2. FOCUS ON YOUR FRIEND NOT JUST THE PROBLEM. Yes, there is a problem. For example, perhaps your friend's mate has just demanded a divorce. In your mind you must carefully keep your friend with all of his or her feelings, struggles, and needs separate from the divorce problem. Your first focus needs to be on your friend. In a sense, you're ignoring the divorce problem and concentrating on stabilizing your friend.

Focusing in on a friend who is in crisis is a demanding task which takes a great deal of emotional energy. You need to be walking with God and being nourished by His Word and His Spirit so you have the reserve ready to give when a friend in crisis asks for help.

3. Next, YOU NEED TO LISTEN. Your primary reason for listening is not to gather information about the problem but to listen to the ‘person." As the feelings spill out, you’ll also pick up information about the problem. But, the problem is not your primary goal.

Listening that is helpful will not be judgmental nor critical. It is not teaching--it is not exhortation. Most of all, helpful listening is not conversational. Think of yourself as an empty bucket. You are sitting there while your friend pours all of his or her feelings into you. Remember, the bucket doesn’t respond with Bible verses or great insights. At this stage of helping a friend, you are just listening.

The process of listening means that you are still focused on your friend. You're looking into your friend's eyes, and you're nodding to indicate that you understand what is being said. Your verbal responses might be, "Uh, huh," "Yes," "Yes, I understand." You give no evaluations with those phrases.

You may need to assist your friend to continue emptying feelings into your bucket. When your friend stops talking, just sit quietly, reach out, and gently touch him or her. Sometimes people need silence to think through what they’re saying and to think through what’s happening to them. Don’t be afraid of silence.

It might also be helpful to just rephrase the last idea that your friend spoke in the form of a question. For example, your friend may say, "John says that we never should have gotten married." You wait a few moments and then quietly you ask, "John feels your marriage was a mistake from the beginning?" A question allows your friend the privilege to continue talking.

Remember that the purpose of your listening is to drain off your friend's emotions--to help get feelings and ideas out in front. It also gives you an opportunity to join in the hurt and to bear the problem with your friend. This is exactly the teaching of Galations 6:2,3: "Bear one another’s burdens, and thus fulfill the law of Christ. For if anyone thinks he is something when he is nothing, he deceives himself." Remember that helpful listening is hard work.

4. As you seek to help your friend in crisis, you need to EXPRESS EMPATHY. Empathy comes from two Greek words which mean to feel with; that is, you begin to sense someone else’s feelings. You see the situation through your friend's eyes. That doesn’t mean that you lose your perspective, get depressed, feel anxious, and end up in a crisis too. You are, however, able for a little while to walk in your friend's shoes and feel his or her feelings.

There are many ways to express empathy--be present with that pen, listen, and show care with your eyes, face, and gentle touch. Empathy means modeling the type of understanding Jesus had for people. Hebrews 4:15 says, "He is touched with the feelings of our weakness." Right now you can ask God to make you a more empathetic and caring person so that you are able to minister to people who are hurting.

5. HELP YOUR FRIEND FOCUS ON THE PROBLEM. Remember not to push your friend to focus on the problem before you have really ministered to him or her through careful listening and expressing empathy. You will know when your friend is ready to concentrate on the problem because there will come a sense of peace--not a peace that the problem is settled, but a peace that comes from knowing that you care and you're going to be with him or her through the process to the solution. When that sense of calm comes, you are ready to talk about the problem.

It’s very important that your friend owns his or her own problem and the solution. Therefore, be very careful not to give any direct advice. Always ask, "What do you think?" "What are your options?" "What are your feelings about this problem?" You are focusing your friend's thinking on the problem. Remember, if you do this too early, your friend will think you are only problem oriented and that you don’t care about him or her as a person.

As your friend begins to talk about the problem, listen for a sense of ownership. For example, if you're trying to help a man who has just lost his job, in the earlier stages he may deny that it has happened. He may think it’s all just a bad dream. He may say the company is going to change its mind and re-hire him. He may project blame on several different people. As long as he projects blame or denies it has happened, he has not owned the problem. Someone else is to blame or there isn’t really any problem.

If there is such projection or denial, then you must continue to listen. Help your friend call out bitter, angry feelings. There will come a time when he will finally say or infer, "Well, I guess I’m really fired--so what am I going to do about it?" Now he has owned the problem. You are ready to help him with some answers.

6. WORK ON SOLUTIONS. Say to your friend, "Let’s talk about some of your options. Let’s dream a little bit. If you could do anything you wanted to do, what would you do? Let’s list every possible option." Your role now is to help your friend get a broad perspective on every possibility.

After you get all of the possible solutions out in front, ask him to tell you about each possible solution. "What do you think about each option? And more importantly, how do you feel about it?" Now you are encouraging your friend not only to own the problem but also to own any solution that will come.

7. Your next step is to HELP YOUR FRIEND THINK THROUGH THE RESOURCES that he or she has to carry out the chosen solution. Resources can be friends, acquaintances, or any skills and abilities. Resources are within your friend--the quality of person he or she is. Resources are also found in the Scriptures, in fellowship with a group of believers, and knowing God in a personal way. Help your friend to think through and list the resources he or she might use.

8. Now, SET THE PLAN IN ACTION. You should help your friend think through a timetable as well as accountability and responsibility. In other words, who will do what and when? Which things will be done first, second, and so on? What is the projected date when they will be accomplished?

Helping a friend through a crisis, is a large undertaking. But if you have done it careful, not only have you helped your friend through this crisis, but you also have taught your friend how to work through future problems. And now your friend can help someone else through a crisis.

When burdens are shared between friends, the total load is miraculously lightened. Reach out with both hands--one to God for strength and perspective; the other one to your hurting friend who needs your love.

Conway / Farrel Articles ~    Reprint by permission only,  ©2011

Midlife Dimensions ~


The Conways and Farrels are international speakers and popular authors.

Midlife Dimensions is a ministry founded by the Conways and continued by the Farrels.