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Supporting others (whilst looking after yourself)

How to be a friend

Here are some suggestions that we think are useful when supporting friends in all sorts of circumstances. You could be supporting a friend who is grieving or has come out of a relationship, someone who is unwell either physically or mentally or they may be going through a hard time with their studies, employment or having issues with family or friends. Whatever the situation is, there are some simple strategies that you can use to show your friend that you are there, you care and are listening to them, that they have someone to support them and help them to work out what they want and need to do.

You may find watching the video below in your own time helpful.

Top tips for looking after your friends

Doing the right thing:
  • Reach Out – make yourself available whether in person, via technology or old school, write a letter, it is the art of showing up that resonates.
  • Remain Calm – let them know you are here, you might not know all the answers or how best to support them but you can work it out together.
  • Listen a lot, listen actively, empathetically and allow them to talk or not, sit in silence or just be with you. Humans are naturally social and need to have connections for their own wellbeing, so just having someone to listen can be a huge help.
  • Be aware of body language, understand the impact that your body language can have on a conversation. As a form of nonverbal communication, body language includes: facial expressions, gestures, posture, head movement and eye contact. How you look at, mirror, sit or stand/walk with a friend can impact on their emotions. You can show them your feelings through your body language. Body language is believed to contribute to a significant amount of what we as Humans are trying to say.
  • Utilise different responses for different situations. For example, if a friend has suffered a loss, listening and supporting, remembering with them and giving them time to work through the grief cycle can be helpful. For someone who has lost a job, more practical support and advice might be more useful, job search, interview prep, budgeting etc.
  • Try to remain in contact with your friend and don’t treat the support as a one-time thing. Maintaining contact throughout someone’s experience can really help them to know that you value their friendship and they mean a lot to you.
Say the right thing:
  • Say the right thing – make it about them and not you. Keep your focus on your friend, let them know that they are not alone in life. Let them know you are sorry that they are having a rough time.
  • Make them laugh, hold eye contact, distract them with fun and joy. Making someone laugh and think away from the situation can give them a few moments to have time away from their worries and concerns.
  • Watch clichés, use honesty effectively – ‘Everything happens for a reason’ statements aren't helpful when you're trying to comfort a friend. You cannot quantify anyone’s grief or experience, just because statistics might say what they are going through may be commonplace, that doesn’t help with their emotions.
  • Stay positive – listen and ask questions and when possible focus on positive elements of the situation.
  • Offer solutions or ask them questions to enable them to find the solutions themselves, ask them how you can help - What's the best way I can support you right now? Do you need someone to vent to? Or would you like my advice? How are you feeling about whatever tough experience your friend is going through? Tell me about your thought process. Try not to foist your opinions on your friend to try and fix and overcome the problem. Try not to become so upset on their behalf that it affects your own wellbeing.
  • Accept that they might not listen or act on your suggestions/support. This is ok. Sometimes it can be frustrating when those we care about cannot see a solution that might be obvious to them. They might not be ready to make these changes or act on your suggestions. They might not be ready to access support. This is their decision, support them with the process and be confident that by offering this support they may come to act in the future in their own timeframe. Other Actions:
  • Report and abuse, safeguarding and know where to go to in order to escalate the situation. In instances where you are concerned about the welfare of your friend or someone they have told you about, you might find yourself in a situation where you think action needs to be taken to support, safeguard and protect your friend or those connected. In this instance, it is important to remember the options you have, not only on campus, but online and external to the University. Please see our list for emergency contacts
  • Let them be sad for a while and sit with their worries, but help them to see any positives.
  • Distract them by doing something fun
  • Keep it confidential (unless of course there are issues around safety, abuse and risk or vulnerability)

Supporting a friend while supporting yourself

    It is natural to want to support someone who is in distress. It may be useful to define what is causing you concern:

    • Have they talked about their problems?
    • Are others concerned also?
    • Have they changed recently?

    They may have changed:

    • in appearance (weight gain/loss, smiling less/manically, less kempt, etc)
    • in mood (quick to anger/irritability, sullen, low/hyper, miserable/over-excitable)
    • in level of engagement (more/less sociable, interested in themselves and others)
    • in patterns of behaviour (self sabotaging - over/under working/socialising, reduced self care (eating unhealthily, harming self in some way, substance misuse)

    Looking after your own mental well-being is essential – consider and set clear limits on how much time and energy you can give - being clear yet brief with your amount of support is better than giving lots of support then feeling overwhelmed and having to find ways to carefully and sensitively pull back from the level of giving.

    Don't take responsibility for your friend's problems. It's not up to you to solve their difficulties.

    You can also get support for yourself about your friend’s problem without mentioning their name - contact someone you can trust to talk it all through with. Do actively seek out support for yourself too if you feel it could be helpful - sometimes when we help and support others, it can re-stimulate difficulties of our own, so take extra care to look after yourself when you're involved in supporting others, consider professional counselling services for you too.

    If you are seriously worried and need to alert someone else, try to get your friend’s consent, but in certain situations it is better to break confidentiality to ensure the best help can be sought for your friend (see below).

    Remind your friend of the resources available, for example Wellbeing Support Services

    The Karpman Triangle

    This is a model of social interactions and conflict developed by Stephen Karpman in 1968. It's based on the idea that when it comes to relating to others, we can all at times get into patterns or roles of behaviour which, although they feel comfortable in some ways and allow us to get some of our (possibly unconscious) needs met, they are ultimately unhelpful and self-perpetuating. He defines three different roles, which form the points of a triangle and which work in interaction with each other.

    Someone in the "victim" role struggles to believe in their own power and capacity to make changes in their circumstances. To avoid taking on that responsibility, they may depend on a "rescuer". A rescuer in turn has difficulty believing that their own needs are important and worthy of being met: instead they focus on others' needs, often at the expense of their own.

    The third part of the triangle is made up by the "persecutor", who seeks to dominate and overpower others as a way of not having to admit to any part of them which might feel helpless or powerless.

    These roles perpetuate each other, and it's possible too to switch between the roles: someone in the rescuer position for example may start to become persecutory, if their hard work in attempting to rescue doesn't seem to be going anywhere.

    The way out of the triangle involves moving into different roles, with a different way of communicating which doesn't discount ourselves, or the other people in the triangle. This is sometimes known as the Empowerment or the Winner's Triangle.

    If you recognise any of these roles being played out in your friendships and relationships, it may help to think about how you could change your style of communication. You can find more detail here:

    Linda Graham - Triangle

    Lynne Forrest - The faces of a victim

    In a Crisis

    If you are concerned about the risk to your friend’s personal safety, or that of others, you may need to act without their consent. In a crisis situation, ensuring your own safety and that of others is paramount. It is important to remain calm and to adopt a non-threatening approach, explaining in a straightforward way what you are doing. You may need to contact the emergency services (999) or, on campus, Security staff can assist. After a crisis, ensure you get support for yourself by talking the situation through. You may want to access support from Wellbeing Support Services.

    2 minute tip

    Supporting Your Friends

    • It is natural to want to support a friend in distress, here are some things to consider:
    • Doing the right thing: comfort, be present, make it about them, be conscious about your body language and listen actively, leave them if they need space.
    • Say the right thing: ask open questions, let them talk about their own experiences,
    • Act: support them to access help and follow up with ongoing support

    Here are some ways you can support your friends at Warwick

    • Reach out
    • Remain calm
    • Maintain contact
    • Encourage, empathise and don’t judge
    • Active Listening
    • Body Language
    • Open Questions
    • Distract with fun, make them laugh
    • Report or seek advice for any concerns, abuse or vulnerability

    Remember to look after yourself, it is important to safeguard your own health and wellbeing by setting boundaries, understanding that while you can comfort friends and encourage them to access support and it is not your responsibility to fix things.

    Useful resources

    At the University of Warwick

    • Security on campus 22083
    • Nightline 024 7641 7668, or Internal ext 22199. 9pm – 9am. Term-time
    • Wellbeing Support Services - You may wish to contact Wellbeing Support Services to access further support for you or your friend

    Other Resources

    Available from the University Library:

    How to help someone who is suicidal . Book which includes straightforward advice and a list of further resources Hill and Gorman.

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