I’ve always wanted to be a good friend to the people I care about — to offer a kind, non-judgmental ear, lend a hand and strong back with physical tasks, to cheer on a friend’s success and to share in their sorrows. Hopefully you have a friend who is there for you, and I hope you offer support to those you care about.
But these acts of friendship can sometimes go awry. Different people have different needs and determining those needs and providing them can be a challenge.
Countless letters to advice columns, personal experiences, and jokes attest to the difficulty people experience when they need the comfort and support of their friends and partners. These challenges are backed up by scientific research.
I vividly remember reading You Just Don’t Understand – Women and Men in Conversation 30 years ago by linguist Dr. Deborah Tannen and her message about how different sexes use language in different ways. In particular, I recall examples where women and men would become frustrated with each other when one was discussing a problem or complaint. In some cases, men would hear women’s complaints and want to solve the problem rather than just listen. Amongst themselves, one man would express a complaint and others would completely change the subject or make a joke of it, rather than commiserating and empathizing.
More recent research, discussion, and cultural awareness and sensitivity may make Dr. Tannen’s work seem pedestrian today. But I believe her overall message remains valid: different people communicate differently and have different needs when they are hurting.
In my own life, I could see how different friends coped with stress and worry in different ways. Some needed to vent. Some needed to do something physical. Some wanted to avoid the stressor completely. Some just wanted a hug. I had inconsistent success guessing what they needed and providing it.
Over time, I’ve developed SDAC (which I pronounce, “ESS-dack”). I’m certain others have figured out something similar, but here’s my strategy. When I sense a friend is in distress, I offer them SDAC. Unless I’ve talked about it before, they have no idea what I am talking about. Here’s what I mean: I offer them Silence, Distraction, Advice, and/or Comfort.
Silence means I will listen silently, without interruption, offer no feedback, no judgment, just listen and let them vent their frustrations, articulate their grievances, exorcize their demons. It may require discipline not to finish a sentence, correct a word, interject “yes, but…,” or offer solutions. But some people just need to give words to what they are feeling and the space to do so without any response.
“The word ‘listen’ contains the same letters as the word ‘silent’.”― Alfred Brendel
Some people want Distraction. They have been engulfed by their fears, sadness, and/or anger and need to be pulled out for a while. In such cases, I may give the account of my day, tell a funny story, read a poem, sing or play a song, etc. Sometimes disrupting the spiral of darkness allows the person to step outside of themselves for a moment and experience some relief.
Advice should only be given when truly asked for. Numerous women I know have been frustrated and angered by men (including me) who offer advice and solutions after hearing their current complaint. People can feel patronized, demeaned, and not heard when the first response they get is a solution rather than empathy.
Many people, especially men, may feel uncomfortable with negative emotions and gravitate to problem-solving mode, which is a safe and comfortable place for them. But that may be the opposite of what the person needs in that moment.
“Advice is like snow – the softer it falls, the longer it dwells upon, and the deeper it sinks into the mind.”—Samuel Taylor Coleridge
Some people don’t want to talk about, be distracted from, or advised on whatever their current stressor is. They may need Comfort. If you are together, that could be a long hug. If you are physically separated, it could be to be reminded why they are your friend and why you think they are special. Bad things happen to good people. Reminding someone that just because they didn’t get the job, their child is faltering, or whatever, doesn’t mean they, themselves, are bad or damaged. You still are their friend, and you still love them.
I truly believe we don’t tell others frequently enough how we feel about them. Being reminded of that can be a huge comfort.
Offering SDAC helps me know what my friends need, but it also may help the person in distress.
Often, when we are in a state of crisis, we don’t know what we need. We are consumed in the vortex of feelings we are feeling. When offered SDAC, sincerely and without judgment, we are invited to stop for a moment and seriously consider what would help us, what would make us feel better in that moment. That alone can be both empowering and calming. Even if the person offering SDAC isn’t great at delivering it, creating a space for the stressed person to figure out what she/he/they need can be an act of great kindness in itself.
Most everyone to whom I have shared the concept of SDAC has found it helpful. But it takes practice — I still falter at times and provide the wrong response to friends under stress before remembering to offer SDAC.
Please consider giving SDAC a try. I suspect you may find it helpful, whether you want to offer kindness and support to a friend in need, or you are the person needing it.
Peace and grace.