Helping a Mate – blog

May 14, 2020

What to do when someone confides in you:
How to achieve the best possible outcome from those difficult conversations.

Helping a Mate Nathan Bolton
Nathan Bolton: Afghanistan, Uruzgan Province 2010

I vividly remember the first time I confided in one of my mates in a state of serious distress. This happened many moons ago when I was still in the Army and had recently returned from my second tour to Afghanistan. I had been home for some 6-8 months and my world was imploding. Things were no longer making any sense. I was so lost, confused, frustrated, angry, upset…I was a whirlwind of emotions that was losing control. Little did I know at the time that I was on a path of destruction that would resemble a full-blown Category 5 Hurricane. The pain I was feeling was so intense, it felt like it was ripping me in half from the inside out. Not knowing what was going on, I suffered in silence…ashamed of the man I had become. Soon I would find myself driving home from work screaming at the top of my lungs and punching my steering wheel, for no other reason than to get whatever “it” was, this pain, this monster inside, out of me.

Looking back, I cannot help but offer myself a bit of empathy. I cannot imagine having to relive and go through this period of my life again. I was dealing with a series of complex traumas from two tours, I had family problems going on, I had just broken up with my girlfriend. The only injury that was “visible” at the time was a hip injury, for which I saw doctor after doctor, as no one was willing to perform this experimental keyhole procedure. I soon had bilateral hip surgery followed by 18 months of rehab, which lead to me feeling like a broken soldier and a liability and ultimately being medically discharged from the Army. On top of that, I was diagnosed with PTSD and Major Depression, which was further exacerbated by the transitional problems associated with leaving the military, such as grief and loss; loss of purpose, identity, camaraderie, hardship and more.

My life was spiralling out of control and I had finally reached the point where the “stoic” façade that I had always hidden behind was no longer enough. I had to talk it out, I had to unload, I had to relieve these burdens off my chest. I was in pain, a pain that I had never felt. This was no physical pain…that I was used to. This was something else and I just had to let it out.

So, there I was, in a moment of desperate inspiration, in the car with a mate…that I finally went for it. 

I can still remember the sheer amount of strength and courage I had to muster to get that conversation started, but once the ball got rolling, I felt the weight just lifting off my shoulders. I placed my ego and my masculinity on the chopping block and began letting go of just some of the problems that I was battling with. After a couple of minutes had passed, I paused to give my mate an opportunity to respond.

The next moments I remember very vividly… burnt into my emotional circuitry. I can still see his face, looking at me as if to say “What the hell was that?”. I can still hear his collection of “ummm’s”, “ahhh’s” and “yeah’s” as he tried to compute, comprehend and respond to the conversation I had started. I can still see him look at me, searching, trying to find something to say…but just didn’t know what.

Within moments, I saw his uneasiness…which in turn made me feel uneasy. Negative thoughts started running through my head, and suddenly I felt like I was some crazy little whinging bitch, whining about my “owies”. My internals suddenly began screaming at me to shut my mouth, in an attempt to prevent committing social suicide. I retreated, my guard and defences went up higher than ever and then I completely shut that door down.

After a few moments of awkwardness, my mate finally pieced together the best response he could muster…”Sometimes, you just got to…I don’t know…tough it out…you’ll be sweet”.

8 months of severe pain and suffering led to that moment. I had one shot, one chance to begin the process of recovery, and it blew up in my face. From that point on, I never spoke another word about my pain and struggles…until it almost cost me my life.

So now here I stand, looking back, in a moment of reflection, asking myself what would I do differently? I would have to say:

  • Choose the right person: Yes, he may be one of your best mates, but he may not be the right person to talk to. In those moments, the person you choose needs to provide you with an empathic and emotional ear in order to drive connection, offer safety and trust. For me, deep down, I knew this mate wasn’t the best bloke for the job, and it backfired in my face and set me back years. Looking back now, I actually had the perfect mate to talk to…but after what had happened, it was too late and I had already shutdown.
  • Test the waters: You don’t have to go out guns blazing…offer an insight into a problem you are experiencing and then judge their reaction. If it is inviting and they ask to know more, go on. If they move the topic or you get that gut feeling that they are the wrong person…trust it…as it is usually right.
  • Past experiences: Take a quick snapshot of their character, past experiences and past interactions. Why them? If they’ve been in a similar situation before, it can be a good indicator of an inviting conversation. 
  • Loose lips sink ships: If the person is known to break someone’s secret or a confession for sake of conversation, chances are he will do it again. Trust and comfort is vital in these challenging conversations…so that we don’t regret and build further anxiety about any negative follow-on effects from having the chat.
  • Emotional Hangover: These conversations can take a lot out of the both of you. Do not over-do it, as you can easily burn each other out. A trained psychologist or counsellor can offer these conversations in a far safer environment if you need to work through a problem. No two psychologists or counsellors are the same however, so if you don’t connect, move on and find another. 

How to achieve the best possible outcome from a difficult situation.
If my mate confides in me, what should I do?

The fundamental component to remember when someone starts this kind of conversation with you is… “close your mouth and open your ears”. Active listening with an unconditional positive regard is at the forefront of engaging in a positive conversation. When someone confides, they are the one struggling, they are one trying to unload off their chest, they are the one trying to take some of the weight off their shoulders. They are in need to just need to talk it out loud, and the chances are, if you let them, they will either solve their own problem in the process or find a moment of peace within their current situation. 

As human’s, we always want to help solve people’s problems. But there is usually so much more to a person’s problem or story, that our dismal attempts at trying to provide advice, ends up backfiring and causing more harm than good. The goal of a great conversation is keeping them talking and biting your tongue. 

We all have those internal moments where we find ourselves telling ourselves…” you are not equipped to deal with this, you have no idea what you’re doing, you have no idea what to say, what do I do, OMG…I’m in too deep?” A moment of internal panic for anyone. But this is a common experience as many of us don’t spend every hour of every day having these conversations. They can be rare and far and few between, so don’t expect yourself to be some kind of Ghandi psychological, philosophical guru. There is no rule book or quick guide to follow…do the best you can…as they chose you for a reason. 

So, the next time you find yourself in one of these situations, don’t panic. Instead, just remember some of these basic tools and you will be surprised at how great a job you will do. 

  • Encouragement: These are the little positive encouragers like “Mmm hm” and “Uh ha” that you say throughout the other person talking to enforce that you are actively listening and are encouraging them to keep talking. 
  • Silence: It may feel a little awkward, and this one is up to you to read in the conversation. However, silence is an opportunity for reflection and a piecing together of thoughts. Comfort in silence is a great way to build empathy and trust.
  • Echo: This is repeating a keyword or phrase that was said that will help drive the conversation forward. Repeating a couple key words informs the person that you are not only actively listening, but also being critical with your responses and judgements.
  • Paraphrasing: Amidst a small chunk of conversation, you paraphrase the gist of what you heard into a clear synthesised picture and say it back. This can help clarify and condense problems making them clearer and offer a fresh perspective from your point of view. Ans it also offers an opportunity for the person to correct you if the wrong message was conveyed.
  • Summarising: This is the grouping of a larger body of conversation together of what was said, key themes and feelings. Similar to paraphrasing, it can synthesis and clarify a large volume of information into a manageable few sentences or notion. It further supports connection through allowing one to believe they are being heard, and it can make further discussions a lot easier as you now have shorter ways to express large bodies of conversation. This is a great way to refocus a person in crisis on a single and particular issue…instead of seeing a group of issues as an overwhelming whole.
  • Questioning:
    • Open questions are a great line of questioning as they open up the other person to discuss, elaborate and explore.
      • What’s going on…what happened?
      • When did this all start?
      • Where were you?
      • How did that situation make you feel?
    • Closed questions are great when you need a specific yes or no responses to elicit information quickly and simply.
      • Are you thinking of taking your own life?
      • Did you do this?
      • Was there anyone else with you?
      • Do you have any plans?
    • Try to never use “Why” 
      • When you ask someone why, there is a tendency to feel judged and/or interrogated. Avoid this line of questioning…as it is a great way to stop them talking, raise their guard and shut down from the conversation.
  • Reflection of Feelings: This is not so much a reflection of the facts, but more so a reflection on the person’s feelings…demonstrating understanding and acceptance. This opens up the discussion of emotions and shows the person that you understand how their feelings are driving their behaviours. 

These are just some basic steps that can be put into place whenever you are talking to someone in crisis. In a nutshell, all you really have to be, is the version of you that actually cares about his mates, their mental health and their wellbeing. Nothing more, nothing less…just someone who is willing to listen. Some people only get one shot at bringing their pain to the surface, so to avoid the same situation that played out with myself many moons ago, being equipped with some of the basic tools can ensure you reach the greatest outcome possible. We all have the potential to help change another person’s life whether we feel confident about it or not. But in the long run, there is nothing more rewarding than watching a mate prosper after dark days…and knowing that when push came to shove…you were there for them. 

If you are going through a crisis:

Emergency Services:
Police, Ambulance, Fire: 000
Poisons Information Service: 13 11 26

Crisis Support

Lifeline13 11 14 (24 hours a day, 7 days a week)
Lifeline Online Crisis Support (7pm-4am 7 days a week)
Lifeline Get Help
Lifeline Service
Mensline1300 78 99 78
Beyond Blue1300 224 636

If this information interests you and you want to explore it further, or you seem to find yourself fulfilling the roll of an Accidental Counsellor more often than not, jump onto the link below and sign up for the Lifeline Adelaide half day workshop. Best few hours I ever spent.

Lifeline – Accidental Counsellor

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