One of the things I hear all the time is that people’s friends and family just don’t understand what they’re going through as a caregiver.

I also am told all the time how “only another caregiver can understand.”

The sad fact is, a lot of other caregivers don’t understand. Caregiving is a broad human experience and people who’ve done care work for different people at different times will tell you that each experience is unique.

Even if they do understand, they may not know how to support you. The rates of illness, disability, and age-related frailty are so high that it’s rare to encounter someone who truly has no caregiving experience and doesn’t anticipate becoming a caregiver in the future.

Yet, despite being surrounded with people who have first hand experience in care work, so many caregivers feel misunderstood and unsupported. How is this possible?

Because we don’t know how to listen and support each other.

What does it mean to listen?

I’ve certainly tried to comfort a friend only to have them become upset with me. Have you found yourself saying “but I meant well!”

This is a sign that we need to learn to do a better job of supporting the people in our life.

When someone tells you what’s going on in their life, do you:

  • Tell them what they should do
  • Tell them about a similar experience you had
  • Ask questions and respond with empathy

When someone tells you how they feel, do you:

  • Tell them everything will be fine
  • Explain why they should be optimistic, because it’s not that bad
  • Accept their truth and remind them of their personal strengths

When you’re not sure what kind of help someone is looking for, do you:

  • Assume they’re looking for advice, otherwise they wouldn’t be telling you about their problems
  • Tell them they didn’t take your advice last time, so they shouldn’t be complaining if they won’t accept help
  • Ask them if they’d like your advice, your help, or if they’re just venting

Sometimes people refer to listening to and supporting someone as holding space. To hold space is to listen without judgement, to accept their truth as you listen, and to respond with empathy. It doesn’t mean sitting silently, waiting for someone to finish talking, and then continuing on like usual. It means actively listening with empathy and the desire to understand their experience.

If you tell someone what they should do, what you would do in that situation, or about a similar experience you’ve had, you’re no longer holding space for them. You’re filling the space with your own thoughts, beliefs, opinions, emotions, and experiences. You’re not listening, you’re telling.

Asking questions expands the space you’re holding for them. Giving advice fills it in.

What if they need my advice?

Part of holding space is to recognize that the person you’re talking to is a person with their own experiences, thoughts, beliefs, feelings, and understandings of the world. You don’t need to agree with someone to express empathy for the way they feel. You don’t need to think they’re “right” to seek to understand what they’re going through.

The person sharing their troubles with you may not be looking for a solution. Perhaps they already know what needs to be done and are looking for validation. Perhaps they are overwhelmed and would like help sorting out their thoughts. Perhaps they are hoping you’ll provide practical support and are explaining the situation so you’ll understand why they want your help. Perhaps they are sharing an emotional experience in the hopes of feeling understood.

It’s a tall order to give good advice if you don’t understand the situation, how someone feels about it, what their options are, and the outcome they’re hoping for. If you’re able to make a snap judgement about a complicated situation, you’re probably giving advice that’s not helpful or applicable to their situation.

The only way to find out what sort of support they’re looking for is to listen. If it’s not clear, ask!

If there’s an experience you think would be helpful for them to know about, ask if they’d like to hear about it. If there’s a resource that might help, ask if they’d like to know about a potential resource. If you’re confident that you have helpful guidance to impart, ask if they’re open to hearing your advice.

What if they want me to solve their problem for them?

Sometimes people’s words or tone convey that they want you to solve their problem for them. Do you want to take on that responsibility? Do you have that capability? It’s rare for us to have the desire and the power to solve someone else’s problem.

Telling someone to calm down usually has the opposite effect. Telling someone they’re overreacting and it’s not that bad, it’ll all be fine, is also rarely helpful.

Allowing them to be upset while you provide acceptance and warmth helps them move through an emotion. Acknowledging someone’s emotional experience without judgment is a much more effective way of helping someone calm themselves down.

Oftentimes people lose sight of their own abilities when they’re overwhelmed. By listening and asking questions, you can help them tap into the abilities and resilience they already have.

What are they hoping for? How do they feel? What are their options? Is there another way to look at the situation? What would the other person say? What resources do they have access to? What similar situations have they gotten through in the past? What are their strengths? Who else can support them? How do they think they’ll feel about this in six months? What’s important to them? What’s the first step to improve the situation?

What if I don’t want to listen?

Just because someone wants to tell you about their problems doesn’t mean you have to listen to them!

It’s totally okay to tell someone that you aren’t going to listen to them and there are ways to say it with kindness.

“I appreciate you sharing this with me. Your friendship is important to me, but I find this too upsetting to talk about.”

“I’m sorry you’re going through this. I don’t have time to talk right now, but maybe you could call Sara.”

“You deserve support for this, but I’m not the person to provide that.”

“It’s clear how much this matters to you. I’m sorry, but I’m not comfortable talking about this.”

“That’s a tough situation. I’m feeling overwhelmed myself, so I can’t support you in the way I’d like to.”

“I’m honored you trust me with this. Unfortunately, I don’t think I’m the right person to talk to about this. Is there someone else who you feel comfortable talking to?”

You don’t have to make up an excuse. You can simply say no. The kindest thing we can do is to respect our own boundaries.