THE BLOG
09/08/2014 04:05 pm ET Updated Nov 08, 2014

When Friends Avoid Tough Topics: Share a Story, Hear a Story

Justin Parrish

Have you noticed that life's not always as it seems? On the surface, things can appear great but underneath is where real life happens -- the one that's not picture-perfect. It's here where we can benefit from friends who allow us to share our joy and pain.

Years ago when Amanda was going through a rough time in her marriage, she tried to broach the topic with a couple of close friends. She was going crazy inside wondering what was wrong with her and why she couldn't seem to get things on track. She felt desperate to divulge her struggle and banish the sense of isolation that was dominating her days. But each time she went near the topic, she felt dear friends pulling away, changing the topic or glossing over it with a resolute declaration, "You'll be fine." Those responses left her wondering if she had any friends who would really allow her to go deep and not varnish over the tough stuff.

Hear a Story: What Your Friend Needs

Many get riveted to train-wreck TV and dramatic news from afar, but when it hits closer to home, they head for the hills. Why do tough topics seem to be the third rail of some friendships?

We'd like to think that it's because we just can't bear the possibility of a friend's pain. More likely, our professional avoidance techniques stem from feeling so stretched that we don't think we have the capacity even to hear about a friend's struggle. Maybe we feel like we have to fix every problem we hear about. If the struggle involves a third party, we might be steering clear of what feels like gossip. Or, maybe it hits too close to home, and we just can't summon the courage to listen to a reflection of our own mess. Whatever the reason, don't miss out on connection by clamming up or shutting down.

Share a Story: What's In It For You?

Diane learned the life-giving repercussions of sharing openly years ago as she raised a son with ADD and oppositional defiance. When your child is not the winning athlete, star in the play or heading off to an Ivy League school, you can feel, well, like you missed a few key parenting classes. You know your child's strengths and gifts that have yet to be actualized, but the rest of the world is blinded by the outward behavior that colors their opinion of you and your offspring.

Interesting how being real begets real. Diane found that others who bragged about their kids sometimes forgot a chapter -- the one about the other child in their life who was struggling. When Diane served up the unvarnished truth about the gut-wrenching decision to enroll her son in an emotional growth boarding school and the pain of his difficult teen years, others felt permission to share their life dilemmas. The realization that they were not alone in their struggles offered a sense of hope and freedom. Perhaps they didn't have to feel like a failure. It just could be that others, too, were facing the same kind of issues that are all part of life's journey.

Not having to pretend is so freeing. Being able to be who we really are with friends who have shown that they will not judge is a gift. Those who are supportive are probably the ones who understand that next time it could be them needing a shoulder -- someone to talk to who can remind them they are not alone. Whether you're lending a listening ear, or need to share a struggle with a friend, take a deep breath and start with these tips.

How to share the tough stuff

Give a gal a chance to show up! Don't wind your way into a tough topic and essentially put your friend on the spot. Let her know ahead of time that you have a challenge you'd like to bounce off of her, and ask if there's a good time to get together. By doing this, you've eliminated what can feel like a pop quiz--especially for us Fixers.

Ask if she has the capacity to be a listening ear. Let your friend know that all you need is someone to listen. You're also acknowledging the fact that while you've been consumed with your own issue, there might be a whole host of things going on with your friend that deserve some time as well.

Skip the gossip. You may have a struggle with a spouse, child or another friend and you just need a sounding board. Make sure to keep it above board by respecting whoever is part of your story, even when they're not there.

How to hear the tough stuff

Ask questions! Experts say to keep questions safe, but our experience tells us that people are dying for you to ask the tough questions. You don't want to offend or challenge beyond reason, but ask, "What's going on?" and "How are you feeling about that?" And don't let an ambiguous statement go by without asking for clarification.

Take the pressure off yourself! If you knew you didn't have to fix a thing, would that make it easier to stay put when your friend brings up a tough topic? Phrases like, "I'm so sorry this is happening to you," or "This really is a challenge," can be just the thing your friend needs to feel like they're not in it alone.

Focus on the feelings. Don't worry about having the best advice. Just focus on how your friend is feeling: "It seems like you're feeling afraid," or "I can imagine it feels overwhelming." We may not have the same experiences, but we can connect over feelings. And that's the most satisfying connection of all.

Remember: Discretion. Discretion. Discretion. When someone shares a difficult part of their life with you, they expect it to remain between the two of you. One of the keys to friendship that we found in the research for our book, Women I Want to Grow Old With, is that cone of silence must not to be violated. If it is, trust is broken, most likely forever. And those who hear a story about another's misfortune from you will probably think that you will do the same with their difficulties. Friendships are sacred and so is what's shared. Keeping your relationships means keeping confidences in the vault and throwing away the combination!