So you can tell something’s up with your mate.
Maybe you can sense he’s been feeling down. Perhaps he’s been going hard on the grog or the drugs. Or maybe you’ve seen him lose it (more than once?) at a family member or co-worker.
Everyone goes through tough times every now and then. It’s just a fact of life that people get down, lose their temper, or sometimes go on benders, but usually they bounce back and come through it.
With your mate, though, you’ve noticed that it’s been happening quite a bit. Whatever is troubling him isn’t a one-off. In fact, you can sense that something’s changed.
You may also have noticed that whatever is stressing him out is affecting his work, or his relationships with his social group and family, or you’re worried about what he’s doing with his money.
You’re concerned and you want to talk to him about it. The problem, though, is that you suspect you won’t get much of an answer. He’s not the sentimental kind to talk about his feelings. Or he may even just give you the “nah, it’s all good”.
But you know something’s not right. How do you get through to him?
How to get the conversation started
How do you talk to someone if they tend to be generally closed to talking about what they are feeling and thinking? Here are five tips for getting the conversation started.
1) Be straight up and don’t judge
There are a surprising number of reasons why someone may not want to talk about their troubles. Your mate may not see (or may not believe) that what’s happening is a big deal. He may be worried that his family or friends will judge him. Or he may even know where he’s at but he’s ashamed of it.
When telling someone that you’re concerned about something going on their life, be straight up and take the emotion out of it. For example, suppose you’re concerned that grog is affecting someone’s behaviour. Saying “I’ve noticed you’ve been drinking a lot more lately” followed by “I’m concerned that it’s affecting your work” will probably get you a more receptive response than “you’re getting s***faced every weekend and you should be ashamed of yourself.”
The key to openly talking about something problematic is to make it about the action, not the person. Remember, you’re talking to him because you want to help, not knock him down.
2) Talk while you’re doing something else
It can be very helpful to have a ‘distraction’ when initiating a difficult conversation. Quite simply, it takes the pressure off what could actually be a confronting topic. Talking about it while you’re fishing, watching the footy or gaming on the console means your mate is less likely to want to shut down or avoid the issue.
While you’re at it, pay close attention to your body language. Talking while sitting or standing side-by-side, and using less direct eye contact, are examples of neutral postures that can make the situation feel more comfortable.
3) Don’t make it a big deal
As mentioned, one reason that someone may not want to open up is that they are worried about what others might think. They may even be aware of how their drinking, gambling or temper is affecting their life and the feeling of shame may be a reason they don’t want to talk about it.
Whatever the reason, you’re more likely to get a good response if you don’t make a big deal about it. When letting someone know that you’re worried about them, don’t be unnecessarily dramatic about it. Don’t get agitated or take on a worried tone, and don’t stare him in the eye with your serious face. It’s much better to just be straight up and say it like it is.
Indeed, remaining calm and keeping your cool in no way means you’re avoiding the issue.
4) Let him do the talking and don’t make it about you
It’s natural to want to help someone close if they’re struggling. When someone reveals that they’re doing it tough, our first instinct is often to share our own experiences. “Yeah, that happened to me too” or “another mate is going through the same thing…” are common responses here.
Remind yourself that you’re talking to your mate because you’re concerned. Give him space and try not to ‘hijack’ the situation while he’s opening up.
One well-tried communication technique is to use what are called open-ended questions. These are questions that cannot be answered with a simple “yes” or “no”. For example, compare the following questions:
- “I’ve noticed you seem to be having a hard time lately, are you ok?”
- “I’ve noticed you seem to be having a hard time lately, what’s up?”
Notice how “what’s up?” is harder to dismiss with a simple “yeah, all good” than “are you ok”. The idea is to get someone to address the question directly.
5) Treat it like a project
If someone’s struggling emotionally, part of the problem may be that they feel ‘stuck’ or have little or no control over their situation. While talking about it is very helpful, a useful approach is to take it a step further and treat the conversation as the starting point for practical action.
A lot of blokes have a ‘solution based’ outlook — your mate may even be the ‘problem solver’ in his life, whether he’s the hands-on handyman at home or is assigned to deal with difficult parental talks with misbehaving kids.
If you’re talking about stress and worry, think about dealing with it in terms of practical, sensible steps. Is he feeling down because he hasn’t found work in eight months? He may be going through a period of depression. While looking for work in this instance is a practical step, there’s no reason why exercise, eating better and making an effort to get out of the house and staying socially connected shouldn’t also be seen as equally important steps.
Similarly, talking it out with someone should be seen as another practical, straightforward way of solving the current source of stress. This can be with a trusted friend or family member or it may even be with a professional counsellor.
Need help? You can find support services in northern Queensland or complete a self-administered K10 test for depression and anxiety. You can also join the online mental health forum to talk with like-minded people.