How to Comfort a Friend in Need

We’ve all been there: A friend calls crying because she’s going through a tough time at work, at home or in her personal life. You want to comfort her, but for most of us, the first impulse is to give advice.

“When someone we care about is hurting and upset, we want to make things better,” says Michael P. Nichols, Ph.D., author of The Lost Art of Listening.

And that’s exactly what Jill Budik of New York City thought when her friend Kathy phoned recently to tell her she’d been laid off. “I rattled off names of five people I knew who could help her find a new job,” Budik says. “But she just got more upset.”

Even though Budik’s heart was in the right place, it turns out that jumping in with suggestions isn’t always the best way to comfort someone. Before a friend can resolve a situation or feel better, she must first let the reality or news sink in, and the only way to help her do that is by listening.

“Acknowledge that you understand by saying something like ‘That does hurt’ or ‘How terrible,’” says Dr. Nichols. Then ask general questions, such as “Oh, no, then what?” Also avoid anything that, instead of comforting, implies you’re judging or offering an opinion. For example, steer clear of “Why didn’t you do x, y and z?” If your friend isn’t talking about the problem, it’s better to bring it up than ignore the situation, adds Dr. Nichols. Encourage her to open up by saying something like, “I’m sorry. I know you’re going through a rough time ….” Then be quiet and give her a chance to start talking.

Later, after you’ve heard her out, try these strategies for providing comfort during some of life’s most challenging situations:

    1. Help a friend who lost her job.
    Getting fired or laid off often brings up mixed and complicated feelings, says Scott Haltzman, M.D., author of The Secrets of Happily Married Women. Maybe your friend hated her job but at the same time is worried about making ends meet. So encourage her to talk through feelings instead of assuming you know how she feels. In Budik’s case, Kathy told her later how unhappy she was working in finance. “I realized then that contacts in finance was the last thing she wanted,” she says.

    After some time passes, however, you can take a proactive role, especially if you sense your friend is getting a little too comfy watching talk shows every morning and soaps all afternoon. Offer to host a brainstorming session, suggests Susan Page, author of Why Talking Isn’t Enough. Invite friends over to share ideas about how your pal can find a new job, earn money or simply stay motivated. For five minutes, discuss a single topic. “Welcome ridiculous and outrageous ideas -- you never know how an idea will spark,” says Page. At the end of the session, at the very least, your friend will feel inspired and less isolated.

    2. Help a friend with an illness.
    We all want to share experiences, but whether it’s cancer, foot surgery or a root canal, repress the urge to immediately launch into a 10-year-old story about your own illness. Instead, put the focus on her by saying “What a drag. I can’t believe this is happening” or “How are you feeling?”

    A sick pal also doesn’t need a problem solver. Most people simply want reassurance that you’ll be there to offer support, says Dr. Haltzman. So tell her that, and in addition to listening to her worries and fears, offer up practical ways to simplify her life.

    “Ask if you can drive her to doctor’s appointments, organize friends to visit, bring over meals or [ask] if she’d like you to compile Internet research on her condition,” suggests Page. Also think of things that will put a smile on her face: Deliver flowers or a bag of romance novels and magazines. Send notes of encouragement on a regular basis to help keep up her spirits. 

    3. Help a friend going through marriage troubles.
    Be a sounding board, but never take sides, say experts, even if she asks point-blank whether she should leave her partner. If they patch things up, your pal could resent you later for what she perceives as criticism of someone she loves. Instead, if she presses you for guidance, suggest a counselor. Or suggest that she write a list of pros and cons to help weigh the issues -- from deal breakers to minor annoyances. Then let her talk it through so she can come to a rational and organized decision on her own, says Page. 

    4. Help a friend who lost a loved one.
    A death usually strikes two blows: the initial trauma, then later as you start missing the person’s presence in your life. Your friend needs you during both times, says Dr. Haltzman. In the beginning, listen; then offer your services. Say you’ll call friends to alert them, organize a post-funeral potluck, address thank you notes -- anything. Freeing her up to grieve is a special and comforting gift.

    In the weeks after, encourage your friend to talk about her loved one and share your own funny or touching memories. You can even do it in a note, which gives her something she can hold on to, explains Dr. Haltzman. Finally, mark days on your calendar that could trigger sadness for your friend -- such as on the person’s birthday or an anniversary. Send a card or flowers, or invite your friend out on that day, says Page. She’ll appreciate that someone else remembers and wants to recognize the event.

It’s hard to know how a friend will react in any given situation, but most people simply need and want space to talk about their feelings. That, combined with your help, support and reassurance that you’ll be there no matter what, will not only help them feel better; it will strengthen your friendship in the end.  

Are You Sabotaging Yourself at Work?

Are you frustrated at work? Has it been ages since you received a promotion? Don’t be too quick to pin it on your company -- you might be to blame! You could be sabotaging your career despite your best intentions. Look out for these five career killers -- plus tips from pros on how to get a raise, get promoted and more.

Your Mistake: You don’t speak up at meetings because you don’t think your ideas are good enough -- or you speak up too much!

Why It Backfires: People think you’re not contributing.

What to Do: Force yourself to speak up, says Kate L. Ward, career consultant and author of Personality Style at Work. “Tell yourself, ‘I know this topic and my contributions are as valuable as anyone else’s.’ Boost your confidence by preparing before meetings and wearing something that makes you feel good.”

On the other hand, putting in your two cents too often or too strongly can make you come off as a know-it-all. You run the risk of coworkers thinking you talk too much and aren’t worth taking seriously. To solve this, “force yourself to listen to others’ thoughts -- and stop interrupting,” Ward says. Observe others’ reactions, too. “If they shift their attention elsewhere or hold up their hand when you talk, be quiet,” says Kathi Elster, executive coach and co-author with Katherine Crowley of the upcoming Mean Girls at Work.

Your Mistake: You don’t join in the break-room conversation because you don’t want to be seen as a slacker.

Why It Backfires: While it’s true you shouldn’t chat too much during work hours, you may miss networking opportunities and company news if you always keep to yourself.

What to Do: Smile and greet everyone in your workplace. “You can be friendly without being friends,” says Elster. Go beyond business to learn what you have in common with your cubicle-mates. And give a shout-out to your colleagues when they do something great -- or even give it a good try. Try saying, “I see you put a lot of thought into this idea. Why don’t we take it in this direction?”

Your Mistake: You share your gripes and views -- both in the office and online.

Why It Backfires: You can be branded a troublemaker.

What to Do: If you have a beef with a colleague, share it with the offender face-to-face and diplomatically -- then leave it in the office. “It’s never acceptable to talk negatively about your firm, boss or coworkers,” says William DeFoore, Ph.D., president of the Institute for Personal and Professional Development in Addison, Texas. “It doesn’t fix things, and it could get back to your boss. Instead, express appreciation for your job’s positive aspects. People want to work with -- and promote -- upbeat, supportive and productive people.”

And remember that colleagues can see your tweets and Facebook posts, so keep your personal problems and opinions about hot-button issues offline. Suggests Ward, “Ask yourself: ‘Would I feel comfortable if my grandmother, mother -- or boss -- read this?’ ”

Your Mistake: You get defensive during performance reviews or work snafus.

Why It Backfires: Your boss may see you as immature or unwilling to improve.

What to Do: Rather than trying to explain your behavior or blaming someone else, listen attentively, empathize and identify what you can do to solve the problem, DeFoore says. “Few people receive criticism well, but it’s vital to being seen as solution-oriented.”

Your Mistake: You don’t check job sites at home because it makes you feel disloyal.

Why It Backfires: Though you may be happy with your job, you should always be open to opportunities. You never know when your situation may change, or if your abilities will fall short of the market’s needs.

What to Do: Regularly update your resume and LinkedIn profile, join committees, and attend company and trade events to refresh your skills and learn about jobs. “View your current position as a stepping-stone toward your goals,” DeFoore says. “Have a vision, revisit it and revise it regularly. As the adage says, ‘If you don’t know where you’re going, you’re unlikely to get there.’”

5 Things No One Ever Tells You About Motherhood

There’s nothing like firsthand experience to prepare you for motherhood. Seriously. You can read every parenting book on the market, but only being in the new mom trenches -- sleep-deprived and sore all over -- can open your eyes to the realities of your new role.

“We come to motherhood with preconceived notions and stars in our eyes,” says Debra Gilbert Rosenberg, a licensed clinical social worker, the author of Motherhood Without Guilt: Being the Best Mother You Can Be and Feeling Great About It, and a psychotherapist in Oak Brook, Ill. “The truth is motherhood is tedious, repetitive, sometimes even boring and definitely not glamorous.”

Which is not to say motherhood isn’t wonderful (it is!), but it still helps to know all sides of the story. Here, five surprising things no one ever tells you about being a mom -- plus how to cope with them.

You’ll be tired and achy longer than you might expect.
Some new moms are fine a month or so after the baby is born, but most women need eight weeks or longer to physically recover. (And don’t expect to be Beyoncé-slim by then, either.) How long it takes depends on whether you delivered vaginally or had a C-section, how much sleep you’re getting, and how fast your hormone levels settle down.

“Give yourself permission to recover in the time that’s right for your body,” says Rosenberg. And be sure to bring extra ice packs home from the hospital: The pain down there can be excruciating for a week or more, even if you’ve only had a small episiotomy.

Your baby will bore you.

There’s nothing exciting (or intellectually rewarding) about changing diapers and doing multiple loads of laundry 24/7. “If you’re bored taking care of your newborn, don’t feel guilty or think something’s wrong with you,” says Rosenberg. “The early days of motherhood are all about repetitive, tedious work. Babies don’t do much except eat and sleep. Most babies don’t even smile until they’re 8 weeks old, and it can take three to six months before they’re able to connect with you emotionally and intellectually.” Make peace with the boredom, because before long, you’ll be chasing after a toddler -- and toddlers, with their boundless energy and strong wills, are anything but boring!

You will read Goodnight Moon 1,000 times.

So your 3-year-old is obsessed with playing in the kitchen at preschool? Or maybe she insists on hearing the same bedtime story every night or eating grilled cheese sandwiches for breakfast, lunch and dinner?

Not to worry. Preschoolers get fixated on activities, toys and foods for no single reason: Some may want to master a task, while others find comfort in a familiar routine. Sure, it’s oh-so-aggravating behavior, but it’s age-appropriate and most likely won’t mean anything for the long term. When your child is ready to move on, she’ll move on. As Rosenberg explains, “Your child could play kitchen simply because his friend likes to play kitchen -- and he likes his friend more than the other activities that are available.”

You may lose some of your friends.

New moms don’t have a lot of time and energy to socialize. The result? Friendships may get strained -- and not all of them will survive. “Soulmate friends will still be there for you because the bond is based on your connection as human beings,” says Rosenberg. “But playmate friends may not be available until they have kids too, because the bond is based on hanging out together.”

Other moms will drive you crazy.
The playground mother who brags nonstop about her child’s achievements. The school mom who dominates PTA meetings. The playdate mom who turns her kids’ birthday parties into can-you-top-this extravaganzas. You’re bound to run into all types.

What to do? Disengage! Competitive parenting is a sport nobody can win. But don’t become so aloof around fellow moms that your child turns into an outcast. “Be sociable enough so the other mothers are willing to send their kids to your house to play,” says Rosenberg. “But when the competitive talk starts, say, ‘Oh, I didn’t realize it was this late. I have to go.’” And don’t worry; you’ll find nice, laid-back mom-friends too!

6 Ways to Get What You Want

When you ask your kids for more help around the house, do your requests fall on deaf ears? Do some people find it easy to say no to you at times? 

Women, and especially mothers, excel at taking care of the needs of everyone around us. But when it comes to persuading someone to do something for us, it can feel awkward or be difficult, says Laurie Puhn, a lawyer and author of Instant Persuasion: How to Change Your Words to Change Your Life.

Well, not anymore! You can learn to be persuasive -- and do so without being bullish. The path to getting what you need is filled with obstacles, but if you present your case the right way, you will find success. Here’s how:

1. Remember that rules can be broken.
Don’t let a policy prevent you from asking for what you need or want. “Just because something is always done a certain way doesn’t mean you can’t be the exception,” says Puhn.

For example, if you want to return something after 35 days, but a store policy states 30 days is the limit, ask anyway. Simply be polite and apologetic. (Remember the saying “You attract more bees with honey than vinegar.”)

2. Give a good reason.
To be successful, you must state your case -- all of it. Utilize what Puhn calls “The Because Clause.” “Research shows you’re more likely to get what you want if you use the word ‘because’ and give a reason for making the request,” she asserts. Helping people understand why you’re asking makes them more sympathetic to your cause.

So, the next time you want to change tables at a crowded restaurant, don’t announce, “We want to move to that booth, please.” Try, “I’d like to move because this area is so loud I can’t hear my friend speak.”

If it’s a raise you’re after, tell your boss you deserve it because of specific contributions you have made -- and name them. 

3. Be results-oriented.
Only presenting a problem (e.g., “I haven’t gotten a raise in two years!”) puts the other person on the defense right away. And if someone feels attacked, they are less likely to come up with a solution, says Puhn.

Likewise, if you place blame or waste time disagreeing over who is right and who is wrong (“No, the cable has been out since yesterday!”), it may only lead to a full-blown argument, not results.

Instead, summarize the problem without blaming anyone, then immediately suggest a few solutions. Proposing a resolution from the get-go makes it easier for the other person to simply say OK, recommends Puhn.

4. Ask for the moon. Get the stars.
Not sure what to propose? Whether you ultimately want more help around the house or retribution from the cable company, start by asking for something big, then negotiate. “When the person feels like they’re getting you to back down, they feel better about giving in to a compromise,” says Puhn.

Fed up with gathering dirty clothes off your teenager’s bedroom floor, for instance? Calmly propose she start doing her own laundry. When she balks, negotiate the smaller task of her bringing clothes to the laundry room and sorting them herself.

5. Acknowledge the other side.
When trying to persuade someone, it’s important to listen to and address his or her objections. “If you listen first, you can adjust your request based on the new information,” says Puhn.

If you meet with resistance (which is likely when asking for a raise or something else substantial), try turning the tables. Ask your boss: “What do I need to do to get a raise?” Then, come back three or six months later and show that you’ve met those requirements, suggests Puhn.

6. Don’t take no for an answer.
If you can’t get exactly what you want, keep negotiating, and you may at least get something, advises Puhn.

Your boss can’t afford to give you a raise? Acknowledge her position by saying, “I understand there’s no budget for a $10,000 salary hike, but I would like a sign from the company that it values me as an employee.” See what she says but be ready to put to use tricks No. 3 or 4: Propose they give you more vacation days or allow a more flexible schedule.

No matter the situation, if you approach it with confidence and use these tricks, over time you will develop the powers of persuasion. You may not always get exactly what you want, but you will gain satisfaction in trying. 

Bounce Back Fast From a Mistake

Hope Schmid will never forget the mistake that caused her 6-year-old daughter to come home from school crying. “I was supposed to bring in cookies for her homeroom party,” remembers Schmid, 32, of Fairfax Station, Va. “But I had a project due at work and my mom was going in for medical tests. It completely slipped my mind. I felt like a terrible mother.”

Most people can relate to a mistake like Schmid’s -- and the feelings that come with it. Forgetting to do something important or saying the wrong thing does a number on your self-esteem. “When we mess up, doubts we have about ourselves and our underlying insecurities go into overdrive,” says Leslie Sokol, who holds a doctorate in clinical psychology and is the co-author of Think Confident, Be Confident. You might dwell on the mistake, feel bad about yourself and spend the rest of the day beating yourself up -- or taking it out on others. 

But everyone makes mistakes. “A rare occurrence or utterance isn’t proof that you’re a cruel or bad person,” says Sokol. It’s what you do afterward that makes a difference. Reacting in a positive way, right away, can help put you back in control and allow you to move on and regain your self-esteem.

Check out Sokol’s strategies for how to cope with the following familiar scenarios. Put the advice into practice and you’ll come out feeling better about the mistake and yourself.  

Scenario No. 1: You miss an important meeting because you’re late.

Bounce-back Strategy: Take action.

Apologize to the people you were supposed to meet, then find a way to rectify the situation ASAP, suggests Sokol. If the meeting went on without you, ask a co-worker to tell you what was discussed. Once updated, you can prepare for the next meeting and take action on any next steps.

If the meeting was canceled because of your absence, take the lead in rescheduling it as quickly as possible. Be flexible with your calendar to accommodate everyone else’s. Putting yourself in charge of righting the situation helps you feel capable again. Getting up to speed or securing another meeting time right away also prevents you from dwelling on your goof.

Scenario No. 2: You say something dumb to your boss or in a meeting.

Bounce-back Strategy: Keep perspective.

Acknowledge the mistake immediately by saying something like, “I put my foot in my mouth; let’s take a step backward.” Then, try not to obsess or beat yourself up over it, because that just turns your comment into a much bigger deal than it actually is.

“Remember that one sentence isn’t a reflection of who you are,” says Sokol. “How many comments have you made in your life? At one point or another, everyone says something stupid.”

If you have trouble letting it go -- or your co-workers don’t let you -- keep reminding yourself that it’s normal to make mistakes and try to laugh about it. “The key is to accept that you have shortcomings without letting them mean something global about you,” says Sokol.

Be proactive and plan to be extra-sharp in the next meeting. And believe it or not, there may even be a silver lining: “When we blunder, we show our human side. It can allow others to relate to us and appreciate us as the non-perfect people we all are,” says Sokol.

Scenario No. 3: You forget to send cupcakes for your child’s school party.

Bounce-back Strategy: Own up to it, without excessive explanations or blaming others.

Admit your mistake -- if you forgot, you forgot -- and say you are sorry to your child and her teacher. You can offer a brief explanation if there are extenuating circumstances that you can share openly and honestly. “But make sure your main message is that you messed up and are sorry regardless of the reason,” says Sokol.

Also avoid over-apologizing or offering multiple explanations. (“I didn’t write it down, and the dog got sick and my boss …”) Both are symptoms of doubt, says Sokol. And feeding into any doubts about your abilities as a mother does more to undermine your self-esteem than to comfort your kid or her teacher.

Instead, send cupcakes to make up for the ones you forgot. And keep telling yourself that this one mistake (or even 50 more) does not negate all the other qualities that make you a great mother.

Scenario No. 4: You got a haircut that turned out very, very bad.

Bounce-back Strategy: Focus on the whole picture.

You’re probably embarrassed, so you’ve got to do some self-talk to get past this temporary situation. Tell yourself that feeling beautiful and attractive comes from a combination of many things -- personality, intellect, humor, talent and endless other unique characteristics -- not just what your hair looks like, says Sokol.

Plus, even on the outside, people see more of you than a bad haircut. “They notice how you put yourself together as a whole, including your friendly eyes and warm smile,” says Sokol. “Don’t over-inflate the importance of one perceived flaw.” 

Scenario No. 5: During an argument, you say hurtful things you don’t mean.

Bounce-back Strategy: Be honest and take responsibility. 

As soon as you can, apologize and ask for forgiveness. Explain that you know you hurt the other person and that the comment was your anger talking, not what you truly believe.

For example, after a fight with a spouse, to show that you’re sincere, give him examples to counter your comment, suggests Sokol. If you said your spouse was stupid, tell him, “You know I don’t actually think you’re stupid. Who do I always go to for questions about [insert topic here]?” Or, “Whenever I can’t help the kids with their homework, you always have the answers.”

Also important: Admit that you were wrong. “Say something like, ‘I was upset, but I also know that saying hurtful things is not the right way to handle myself,’” she adds.

It’s normal to feel disappointed in yourself, but once you apologize and take remedial action, you have to let it go, says Sokol. All you can do after that is avoid making the same mistake again.