My friend is ready to talk. What now?

When my friend comes to me and says “I want to talk”. I feel happy that she is ready to open up but at the same time, I feel scared I won’t know how to answer or help. 

Recently, my friend came to me about feeling overwhelmed. She was telling me what happened but I was not fully ready. Once she started speaking, it was more and more build-up, it was so much information all at once. I didn’t know how to react, how to hide my judgments, and how to support her. 

Something that would be helpful is learning basic peer counselling skills. Peer counselling is supporting someone who has similar experiences through listening, understanding and empathy. 

1 . Active listening and reflecting 

This is listening very carefully to the words spoken and the emotions expressed behind the words. You will need to also reflect on what was said by showing your understanding. This is very important to make your peer counsellor feel comfortable and no one will judge or give opinions on their situation. A key point here is not to try and give advice to solve their problem as that is not your goal. 

Example: Try to paraphrase Mary’s situation as a way to respond to her to show you understand where she is coming from. 

“I recently got a very low grade in a big math test, my math grades have been slipping a lot. My mom has such high expectations for me and will punish me. I don’t know how to tell her and I am scared.” 

Dos and don’ts: 

  • DO try and understand how Mary is feeling from being afraid 
  • DO reflect on her situation 
  • DO use body language to show you are engaged in this conversation 
  • DON’T interrupt Mary when she is speaking 
  • DON’T judge Mary’s math grade

2 . Asking questions 

There are two types of questions. Open and closed ended questions. Closed questions are often short “yes” or “no” questions that allow no further explanation. These questions are often risky as they can be judgemental, it is mostly the person asking questions who does most of the talking. Open questions allow further, richer discussion into someones emotions and feelings. The counselee can speak in their own words and gather their thoughts together through answering open questions. 

Example: Try to think of two open questions to ask about Jeff’s situation. 

You found Jeff, a classmate of yours, crying alone in the bathroom. You do not know what is happening but want to help or find someone to help him. 

Dos and don’ts: 

  • DO ask if he wants to talk before initiating any conversation 
  • DO ask a question related to his feelings 
  • DON’T use phrases like “don’t you think” or “why do you think” because it sounds like you are trying to challenge him 
  • DON’T make assumptions about the situation 
  • DON’T use statements like “you could” or “you should” they often lead to giving advice 

Suggestions for questions: 

  • Tell me about… 
  • What else… 
  • How did you… 
  • Help me understand… 
  • To what extent… 

3 . Empower 

In peer counselling, you should never force or hint at a solution. Instead your main goal is to guide your peer to feeling comfortable and understanding his or her emotions to guide them to making their own decisions. You can do this by discussing values they have in life to build their motivation. Values are the heart of making good decisions and if you can identify them clearly, it will be a great advantage in your peer’s success in making a decision. 

Practice: Decide on your top 12 values in life. Then narrow down to your top 6 values from this list of 12. Finally, complete this task by selecting your top 3 values from the top 6. If you feel comfortable, share these three values with a friend or family member and discuss why they are your top 3 core values. 

Examples of values: 

4 . You 

The most important thing is that you feel comfortable listening to your peers’ situation. If you are not in the right mood, afraid to deal with the situation, or just don’t think you will be able to keep the conversation confidential then seek help from others. For example, a teacher, school counselor, parents, or a professional.