How to be there for a friend the first time they call you for support

COVID-19 has fundamentally changed the nature in which we have been interacting with our friends and reaching out for support. As the world catapulted into a digital form of operating, our relationships had to equally match this shift and we’ve found ourselves needing to seek support through our devices more than ever before. This has not only translated in the sphere of accessing professional support, which I previously bemoaned, but also in our normal interactions with those we trust. Over the last year, we’ve all picked up our phones more than ever before.


If you’re anything like me, the thought of having to make or receive a call was enough to make me second-guess any decision to pick up my phone; there seems to be something about the disconnected space that makes any attempts to reach out feel a bit artificial, and maybe that explains why a lot of us prefer texting over calling. It feels like there is an awkward silence always demanding to be filled, even if by meaningless murmurings.


Offering your support to a struggling friend would always be more easily fulfilled by an in-person visit, where you could embrace those mutual moments of unspoken understanding without any feeling of tension. You could take the time to consider over what would be helpful, instead of blurting out the first idea that pops into your head in a need to minimise the silence. Yet as soon as a phone call enters the picture, that seems to drop from the equation, and we start blundering around how best to support those we love.


I’ve certainly had my fair share of humorous, good-intentioned attempts from friends to soothe me over the phone. The first time I tearfully called my best friend for some comfort and support in November last year, she asked me if I wanted to join a Discord gaming channel that she shared with some of her other friends — despite the fact that I am not a gamer, and didn’t know any of the friends on said Discord channel. Nor had I ever been into gaming in the 8 years that we’ve known each other. Almost immediately after she blurted the suggestion, there was a brief moment as her suggestion sunk in, and I could almost see her facepalming through the phone.


Despite the seeming absurdity of the suggestion at the time, I didn’t feel too taken aback even though it was not what I had anticipated at all. I understood the difficult position that she must have been placed in; she was asked to do something that she had never done previously, nor had been taught about. It makes sense that in a panicked attempt to help, the first hurried suggestion wasn’t her brightest moment. While we both now look back at the situation with humour, it did open my eyes to the fact that we have previously been able to remain blissfully ignorant about how to support someone the first time they call you for support. Conversations around how to navigate this unfamiliar territory could have avoided this situation happening, but it was never something that occurred to us before when we could show our love in person.


The prevalence of innocent oblivion struck me again on another occasion, when I was mid-panic attack and phoned a different friend for assistance. As she picked up the phone, her first question to me was whether I had some work I needed help with because she had called a few hours ago with that exact query. Before I had even opened my mouth to speak, she had made an assumption based upon our prior correspondence and thought that with the proximity of time, what I was calling about must be related to our previous conversation. While her dismissal of my problems was completely unintentional, it again raised some interesting points for me, about whether or not we needed ‘phone etiquette’ so that we don’t accidentally shut someone down before they have even had a chance to voice their issues.


Supporting someone through the phone isn’t a topic that comes up in everyday conversation, nor is it a skill that we get explicitly taught, but the last year has highlighted the importance of speaking about this issue. Even when we’re able to hug our loved ones again, there will be moments when you cannot be there for them physically and so learning how to offer relief by the phone will still be invaluable.


Although each interaction will be unique and require its own approach, there are a few general ‘dos and ‘don’ts that I have noticed from my own experiences which I hope will be generally applicable. Having had conversations with those around me, speaking with my therapist, reading, and drawing from my own experiences, there are a few pieces of advice I’d like to offer for thought. Whether you have provided relief over our cellular devices multiple times previously, or you have yet to confront this type of situation, I hope that what I can offer will be useful.


Firstly, do listen to what your friend has to say. It sounds obvious enough, but being able to truly listen so you can understand your friend’s position, instead of listening to respond, requires concentration and conscious thought processing.


In most of our everyday conversation, our minds are preoccupied with thoughts about how we can reply and what we will say next, instead of placing our focus on the immediate words being spoken by the other person. In a phone call, it’s particularly important to make an effort to hear the thoughts being shared, as it will be difficult otherwise to understand the perspective your friend is coming from and empathise with their difficulties. Instead of thinking about what you will say or do in response, try to use that energy in understanding why your friend is feeling the way they do.


This links into my second piece of advice, which is to validate the emotions and feelings that are brought into a conversation.


After you listen and gain insight into what is going through your friend’s head, do reaffirm your friend that what they are experiencing is valid. Personally, there have been far too many times where I have questioned my own feelings, wondering if I’m being overdramatic or reacting excessively to a situation. This fear and confusion then compound onto the negative feelings, leading me into a deeper rabbit hole of hopelessness. By reaffirming your friends’ experience, you show them that you are respecting the concerns and doubts they are entrusting you with, and gently guide them out of the cycle of self-doubt and reprimanding.


Thirdly, do reassure your friend that they are not being a burden. It is far too easy for those reaching out for help to feel like they are impinging on the time of others and bringing inconvenience, making them reluctant to fully open up about the support needed. There’s an attached fear and anxiety when the caller has to go through the motions of picking up a phone, inputting a number, and then putting their hearts on the line as they uncertainly await for a loved one to answer. When the intense internal feelings are already wracking havoc, a kind but firm assertion that your friend is not burdening you will release the tension built-up with every ring of the phone.


Turning to a few other ways you can respond, there are three ‘don’t’s that I would like to mention; don’t be afraid to embrace silences, don’t feel like you need to provide a solution, and don’t be afraid to ask questions.


When someone calls, they are not doing so with the expectation that you will fix all of their issues; for the majority of the time, they just need someone to listen to them and help them cope with their instantaneous external environment. You don’t need to fill up every crevice with sound, and you don’t need to constantly be providing a productive resolution; unless they explicitly mention otherwise, it is unlikely that your friend is calling you to help them glue the pieces of their life together. They can do that themselves, but just not at that moment which is when they just need a listening ear. In a similar vein, don’t be afraid to clarify how you can best assist, or if there are any practical actions they would like you to take afterwards to follow up.


As we continue maintaining virtual relationships, I hope that there will be less well-intentioned, but misinformed approaches to supporting your friends and loved ones through the phone.