3 Tips for Being a Good Sounding Board

There’s no doubt talking to friends when we’re having a hard time is important to our emotional well-being. But not all friends make good sounding boards; identifying the right confidants is important.

“There are three kinds of people,” says psychologist Kevin Gilliland, executive director of Innovation360 group in Dallas. “There are those who are going to tell you what to do about the problem. And there are those who don’t know what to do. Both are about equally unhelpful.”

The best people to confide in are the people who fall between the advice-givers (who won’t listen well) and the cheerleaders (who will just say they believe in you): the ones who will listen, but who will also say things you might need to hear. Gilliland says the people in the middle don’t take sides, say things that are true and ask good questions.

“We need people who know us and we know them, with whom there’s a sense of trust and safety,” he says. “Those people in the middle know that their words carry weight with us. They’re cautious and they’re gentle. They’re not trying to make an argument; they’re trying to make us see something we’re not seeing.”

Here are tips for being a good sounding board:

1. Listen before you talk.

Just because you know what you would do in a similar situation doesn’t mean your advice will help, Gilliland says. Listen for your friend’s perception of the problem before offering up solutions.

2. Don’t rely on platitudes.

While it’s nice to express your support for your friend, just saying, “I know you’ll do great!” can actually come across as a blow-off. Your friend needs help thinking a problem through, not just a cheerleader. 

3. Figure out what is behind the story.

“Listen for the struggle beneath the words,” Gilliland says. Listen for emotional subtext such as doubt, anger, self-blame, ambition, or fear, and ask questions without judgment or criticism. Your goal is to help guide your friend toward insight.

Related: 9 Tips to Become a Better Listener


This article originally appeared in the February 2017 issue of SUCCESS magazine.


Sophia Dembling is the author of The Introvert’s Way: Living a Quiet Life in a Noisy World.

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