How can we help? When we hear a problem, our natural inclination is to solve it. But when a person is in trouble, what he really needs is to have his emotions acknowledged and his experience validated. Listen for what he feels. In a helping environment, content and information are secondary to feelings.
How can we respond?
Paraphrase or restate. Taking in another's thoughts or feelings and offering back their essence lets the other person know you've heard him. Never analyze, anticipate, minimize, contradict, point-score (which has to do with your need to be "right"), or talk about how you've experienced the same thing. And don't assume you already know. "If you think you can mind-read, it's probably about you, not the other person," says Ross. "And you reduce the other person's thoughts to your frame of reference." Listening and paraphrasing encourage the speaker to open up.
Be empathetic. Empathy is quite different from sympathy, which has the effect of putting someone down. Empathy meets another on the same level. For example, your friend tells you "I was fired today. I'm so angry." You know he often played hooky, and you respond, "I'm sorry you got fired," or worse, "I'm sorry you feel that way." These are statements of sympathy -- there's distance and possibly subtle superiority. On the other hand, to say, "You must be so upset that they fired you," acknowledges and validates your friend's pain and expresses empathy.
Avoid veiled judgments. Many times we don't realize the judgments we're expressing. For example, "Does that make sense to you?" is a closed-ended question requiring a "yes" or "no," with values attached; if you answer "yes," you're right/good/smart. Closed-ended questions can be subtly controlling and manipulative, and they're generally misused. A good use of a closed-ended question would be to confirm somebody's state of mind, such as, "Are you scared?" "Do you have enough money for lunch?" Sometimes even statements we consider positive may negate the feelings of a troubled person. "There's nothing wrong with being gay," sounds accepting, but it is your opinion and may not be at all helpful to a 16-year-old boy who believes there's something terribly wrong with his sexuality. Better to ask open-ended questions about how the person feels, establishing rapport and giving another the opportunity to express himself.
Be silent! "Silence is meant to be shared, not filled," say The Samaritans. "Do not be afraid to use silence when you are unsure of what to say or how to respond, or to allow a pause or some quiet space."