6 Ways to Talk to Someone You're Worried About, According to a Therapist

Ask questions and hold space

<p>Janina Steinmetz / Getty Images</p>

Janina Steinmetz / Getty Images

Medically reviewed by Rachel Goldman, PhD, FTOS

When we get worried about someone we are close to, our emotions can overwhelm us. The idea that someone we know is suffering in any way can make us feel anxious, scared, or worse. This holds true for whatever we suspect might be happening with our loved one; from drug addiction to an eating disorder to an abusive relationship.

Telling someone you're worried about them is rocky ground. You want to express your concern, but you don't want to be alienating. How do you find the balance? With the input of a licensed mental health professional we'll walk you through the do's and don'ts of letting someone know that you're worried about them.

Be Patient and Positive

No matter how much you've been thinking about your loved one's potential issue, this is the first that they are hearing about your concern. Because of that, you want to be sure to approach it in a way they will be receptive to.

Maintaining positive verbal and body language and exercising patience as you do so through the conversation is key to a good outcome. "Openness and active listening are vital for conversations with people you're worried about, and you can communicate both of those things through your attitude and body language," explains Madison McCullough, LCSW, Psychotherapist & Clinical Supervisor.



"speak slowly and clearly, lean in when you're talking, and make eye contact. All of these things will indicate that you're present and that you care."

Madison McCullough



The nonverbal elements of our communication with others, such as body language are just as important, if not more so, than the actual words we use. She says it's important that you be a calming presence, rather than an upsetting one.

McCullough recommends that you "speak slowly and clearly, lean in when you're talking, and make eye contact. All of these things will indicate that you're present and that you care," she notes. If this is a way of communicating that doesn't come naturally to you, or that feels awkward, you can try it out with someone else in advance of the conversation you plan to have. That can help you cozy in to new habits.

Ask, Don't Tell

You may think you know exactly what is going on in this person's life, but the reality is that just isn't possible. Everyone is experiencing more joys, hardships, and complexities at any moment than they are likely to share with others. So while you may have a narrative of exactly what is going on in someone else's life, chances are it isn't the whole story.



Takeaway

Because there's no way for you to know 100% of exactly what is going on, you should approach your conversation from the perspective of asking questions rather than delivering what you believe to be facts.



Saying, "I've been worried about you. Do you want to talk more about how you've been doing?" expresses concern and honors the person's agency," McCullough tells us. She says the focus should be that you "demonstrate curiosity, but don't demand answers."

Don't Center Yourself

Yes, you're worried about someone, but letting that worry dominate the conversation isn't helpful. You need to keep your own feelings in check—this isn't about you. "While it's valid—and sometimes important—to tell someone that you're worried about them, don't center your worry in the conversation," recommends McCullough. She says, "You can communicate your concern for someone without projecting your anxiety onto them."

This means keeping things focused on your loved one, not on you or your own experience of their perceived troubles. McCullough says that a perfect example of what not to say is "I've been worried sick about you! Why haven't you called me back? Is everything okay?" That's because that concern is about you and your anxiety, and the other person will probably pick up on that, and in turn, might become defensive or insulted. Instead, she says to "ask questions, and let them know that you're listening."

Related: 7 Active Listening Techniques For Better Communication

Hold Space for Their Feelings

Before you begin this conversation, know that it may be difficult and might bring up challenging feelings for you both and the other person. As the person whom no one is currently worried about, plan on handling your own feelings after this discussion, and don't go interjecting them unless asked. Instead, you need to hold space for the other person's feelings, especially if the issue is a complex or large one.



"Don't force them to talk about how they're feeling, or to disclose anything that makes them uncomfortable."

Madison McCullough, LCSW



Your availability for someone else's feelings should be made apparent in clear and concise language. "Let them know exactly what they can expect from you and the capacity you have to support them," says McCullough. "For example, you might say, "It's important to me to know what you need, and I also want to specifically offer my availability for daily phone check-ins and a long walk once a week."

Additionally, part of working with someone else's feelings is allowing the conversation to go only as far or as deep as they want it to. There's a chance you might finish the get together with less information than you were hoping to get, and that's fine; it's not your decision for someone else to open up to you. "Don't force them to talk about how they're feeling, or to disclose anything that makes them uncomfortable," warns McCullough.

Avoid Accusations

When we feel accused, it's natural to get defensive. In turn, we often close off to what someone is saying, even if their intentions are in our best interests, and become even more resistant to change than we may already be.

Part of not accusing someone can be dealt with by asking and not telling, but even if you are phrasing your words that way you may still have an accusatory tone or language. "Assumptions and accusations breed defensiveness, and therefore do not facilitate open and connected conversation," notes McCullough. "They also center your experience, and take away from the lived experience of the person you're worried about," she adds.

To avoid accusations, keep your tone and body language positive, exercise patience, and don't put forward any judgments about someone else's life or situation. All of these things might come naturally to do, so you might not be 100% successful, especially if you haven't had a talk like this before.

Give yourself grace for imperfections, but never forget that this is about another person, not about you. "Avoid being critical; be curious," says McCullough, which is a helpful idea to keep in mind throughout your discussion.

Related: What Are 'I Feel' Statements?

Follow Up

Your conversation might go surprisingly well, with your friend opening up to you and you helping them through this problem of theirs. It might be neutral, where you aren't really sure if you accomplished much or not. And, unfortunately, you might be met with defensiveness no matter how perfect your approach was, because sometimes people just aren't ready to talk about a certain topic. No matter how it goes, you want to be clear that you'll remain available.

You can choose when and how to follow up based on your relationship with this person, how you both normally best interact, and what they tell you they do or don't need from you. But no matter how you do it, it's important to, even if the talk didn't yield the results you were hoping for. "It'll feel really good to know that they continue to be on your mind," McCullough explains.

Make sure to take care of yourself after your talk, too. We all have the most to offer when our cups are full. This might not have been an easy discussion, but provided you were clear, positive, and available, you've done your best, and that's what matters.

Read the original article on Verywell Mind.