Tips and Tactics

Recognizing Red Flags

Below are examples of warning signs that it might be time to check in with a friend, talk things out, and connect him or her with resources that can help. There’s no need to memorize these lists of warning signs as long as you get the general idea of what to look for. The important thing is staying alert and trusting your gut.

Patterns of Negative Behavior

Negative Changes in Behavior

Major life events—such as a break up or divorce, the loss of a job, or the death of a loved one—are also good times to approach a person to see how they’re doing. Even positive changes—such as the birth of a child, a promotion, or a marriage—can be stressful and bring about negative emotions or behaviors.

Urgent Signs

Signs like the ones below may indicate that a person is experiencing a crisis or considering suicide. If you notice any of these, talk to the person right away and get them help (such as calling 911, taking the person to an emergency room, or calling a hotline like 1-800-273-TALK):

Conversation Tactics

How you talk with someone you’re concerned about can mean the difference between a positive and a negative outcome for them. Therefore, it’s important to know which conversation tactics are most likely to be effective.

First, there are a few general things to keep in mind:

The next few sections comprise a non-comprehensive list of tactics you can use in a conversation like this.

Making Observations vs. Stating Opinions

When you’re concerned about someone, a good way to start the conversation is to make a factual observation. That means describing an observable fact without adding any opinion, exaggeration, or judgment (adding any of these is a surefire way to make the person defensive).

INEFFECTIVE:

EFFECTIVE:

Open-Ended vs. Closed-Ended Questions

Open-ended questions are more likely to get a detailed response, while closed-ended questions often get only a one-word answer.

CLOSED-ENDED (INEFFECTIVE):

OPEN-ENDED (EFFECTIVE):

Ask follow-up questions to get even more information:

YOU: What’s your schedule like these days?

BUDDY: Busy.

YOU: Okay… what’s keeping you busy?

BUDDY: Oh, you know… work has been crazy, and I’m taking night classes, too.

YOU: What kind of classes?

BUDDY: Administration classes. I’ve got my eye on a promotion…

Paraphrasing

Paraphrasing—or repeating back what the person has said in your own words—not only shows that you’re listening and that you care about what the person is saying, but it also gives the person a chance to clarify what they meant. This clarification helps you better understand and helps the person think through what they really mean.

INEFFECTIVE:

CHRIS: Last night at the bar, some jerk saw my tattoo and decided to talk to me about military spending. I let him have it.

NATE: So you can’t handle it when people talk to you about the military.

CHRIS: You’d be pissed off, too! What, am I supposed to just sit there and take it?

The problem with this paraphrase is that Nate sounds like he’s criticizing Chris, and that turns the conversation into an argument.

EFFECTIVE:

CHRIS: Last night at the bar, some jerk saw my tattoo and decided to talk to me about military spending. I let him have it.

NATE: It’s hard to keep your cool when people talk to you about the military. You feel like you need to set them straight.

CHRIS: Well, yeah! It just burns me up, hearing them talk about things they don’t know anything about.

NATE: You want to educate them.

CHRIS: Honestly, it’s probably less about educating them than just getting them to shut up. I want some peace at the bar, not to be reminded all the time about the war.

In this example, Nate’s paraphrase got Chris thinking about what he really meant. When he clarified himself, it kept the conversation moving forward.

Sympathy vs. Validation

Sympathizing means saying you’re sorry for someone or offering pity, while validation means showing you understand the person’s concerns and recognize them as valid.

SYMPATHY (INEFFECTIVE):

VALIDATION (EFFECTIVE):

While sympathy is about how you feel (how you feel sorry for the other person), validation is about the other person (normalizing what they are going through).

Furthermore, because sympathy echoes the person’s negative feelings, it can fuel a sense of hopelessness or anger. If you really want to make the person feel better and focus on problem-solving, validation is more effective.

Agreeing, Disagreeing, and Agreeing With A Twist

What do you do when a person’s problems seem to be rooted in their own unhealthy attitudes or beliefs? Consider this example:

ALICIA: Terry burned through our savings, and now he wants me to drop out of school and get a job. But it’s his mistake; why should I help fix it?

Alicia is refusing to compromise with her husband. If you say you agree with her, you reinforce her negative attitude. If you say you disagree, she’ll argue with you. Neither option seems productive.

AGREEING OR DISAGREEING (INEFFECTIVE):

NATE: You’re right. If he screwed up your finances, he should be working his butt off to fix them.

ALICIA: That’s what I’m saying! I don’t know what his problem is.

NATE: Maybe he’s right and you just need to take one for the team.

ALICIA: Look, I’m doing what’s best for my family in the long run. Don’t you see that?

But there’s a middle ground between agreeing and disagreeing called agreeing with a twist. Start by agreeing (this can also be validating statement), and then offer a “twist” on what the person said, offering a different perspective on what they’ve told you.

AGREEING WITH A TWIST (EFFECTIVE):

NATE: It sounds like he may have made some bad decisions while you were gone, and now he’s trying to figure out how to get things back on track.

ALICIA: I mean… that’s one way to look at it. Maybe I’m being a little unfair to him. I’m just tired of him treating me like the bad guy for wanting an education.

The bold part is the “twist,” where Nate is offering a different interpretation of Alicia’s words. This combines the best of both worlds: it avoids an argument, while still challenging her unhelpful attitude and moving the conversation forward.

Making a Referral

Sometimes a person’s situation may fall outside your area of expertise or may be too much for you and your buddy to handle on your own. In this case, the best thing to do is share information about other resources that can help. For example, if you know a person with health problems, you might suggest healthcare options.

There are effective and ineffective ways to make a referral.

INEFFECTIVE:

EFFECTIVE:

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