1. Be interested. Just being heard and accepted and encouraged to talk helps on the most fundamental level. If you listen well, the person ends up no longer feeling alone. This may seem like nothing, but it's probably the most helpful thing you can do for a distressed friend. Not just listening to their woes but their successes too. People thrive when they feel known and cared about. People wilt and it actually impairs their health when they feel alone and uncared about.
2. Keep your attention on their strengths. Everybody has strengths. But a person's strength is something he usually takes for granted and then because of the brain's natural negative bias, his attention naturally drifts to his problems, what's wrong with him, and where he's lacking. It is a great service to someone to remind him of his strengths when the opportunity comes up. Remind him of previous problems he solved successfully and previous successes. When people are reminded of their strengths and successes, they are actually more capable of dealing with their lives.
3. Give a different perspective with a question or story. Gaining a different perspective on a problem can make all the difference between feeling defeated by it or feeling determined to solve it, and that difference in attitude can make the difference between success or failure.
But simply declaring a different perspective is like saying, "You're looking at it all wrong." Coming at it in such a way can make a person feel defensive, causing her to defend her point of view and potentially make it more difficult for her to ever think differently about it.
So ask a question, "Do you think Gandhi would look at this differently?" Or, "What if we were ten years in the future. How would you look at this problem from that perspective do you think?"
Or tell a story. "This reminds me of the movie Rudy. Remember how he had dyslexia and didn't know it? And he struggled so hard at school until he found out?"
You can help someone with your conversations. You don't have to be a therapist to be helpful, obviously. Friends have been helping their friends since the invention of language.
Focus on the above three principles and you can translate your good intentions into effective help.
When you're listening to someone's woes, it's pretty common to say things like, "I've been there," or "I know exactly how you feel." Or to talk about a similar experience you've had. It seems like it would help make the person feel less alone with her troubles, but it doesn't. Each person is unique, and by saying you've been there, you're putting the person's problem in a general category. That makes it less personal. It is a way of generalizing, categorizing, putting someone in a slot, a class of things rather than duplicating their own experience, which is that they feel they are in a class by themselves. And sympathy isn't as helpful as it might seem.
One of the most helpful things you can do for your friend is to connect with her. So trying to cheer her up usually doesn't help. Cheering her up is, in essence, the opposite of connecting. It is rejecting. It is trying to get rid of what she is feeling. Closeness happens at the level of feeling. If you are trying to stop or change the way she is feeling, you are reducing closeness.
To really connect, listen for feelings and be there, allowing the person's feelings to be what they are. Don't try to relate her experience to any experience you've had. Pay attention. Put your attention out on the other person (not in on yourself, your memories, or your feelings) and try to really grasp what she feels.
This is neither passive, nor is it aggressive. It is of another order of action.
Don't come to the conclusion you know how she feels. Maybe she feels something different than what you would feel in similar circumstances, and maybe you haven't heard the full story. Suspend your conclusions and listen. Put your attention on her and allow her to feel what she feels and be there with her, having your attention on her.
Try to hear her full experience. Ask open-ended questions so you can understand more of her experience. "Did that make you angry?" "What happened next?"
This kind of listening will bring you closer, will help your friend come to grips with her troubles, and will help her feel better. And this kind of listening can be learned.
Adam Khan is the author of Principles For Personal Growth, Direct Your Mind, and co-author with Klassy Evans of How to Change the Way You Look at Things (in Plain English). Follow his podcast, The Adam Bomb.