Learning how to relate to someone else is an involved process, whether you just met the person or have known him for years. In general, if you’d like to relate to a person, take time to get to know him, listen effectively, show genuine interest, and be accepting. Listening and showing acceptance is also important if you’re struggling with relating to someone who has a mental or physical illness. You can also focus on asking the other person questions, offering your support, and learning as much as you can about his illness.
Find common interests.
Look for similarities in personality, experiences, or values. Find activities or interests you both enjoy. Take time to focus on those and find out why the person likes what she likes.
If you just met someone and want to relate to her, stick to small talk to find common interests. For example, you could talk about the sports teams in your area that have been winning or about any new movies that came out.
Ask open-ended questions to learn more about her interests and experiences. For example, you might ask “What do you do in your spare time?” or “How did you decide on that career?”
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Take time to hear and understand both the words and emotional content of what the other person is saying. If you can listen well, you’ll be able to connect to the other person better.
Focus your attention on the other person. Avoid distractions like checking your phone or preparing what you’re going to say once he is done talking.
Avoid judging or criticizing.
Summarize what he has said to you to show your understanding. You can say, “It sounds like you’re feeling…” or “I’m hearing that you’re feeling… is that right?”
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Develop your empathy skills.
Empathy means being able to put yourself in someone else’s shoes and see her perspective. If you work on trying to understand where the other person is coming from, you will better be able to relate to her. Understanding that your experience of life is not everyone else’s and realizing that everyone is just doing their best with the knowledge they have will increase your empathy and allow you to better relate to others, even those who are very different from you.
Build empathy by listening to the other person and validating her perspective. If possible, you can get know her situation better by spending time with her in her environment — such as with her family, in her home, going to events that are important to her, learning her history, and so on.
Maybe you have an easy time expressing your emotions and the other person is very closed off, for example. It might be hard for you to understand why she can’t take emotional risks, until you get to know her better and realize that her family never says “I love you” or talks about their feelings; whereas in your family, open communication was encouraged.
Show true interest in learning more about the other person. If you’re fake or not really interested in relating to him, he will be able to pick up on it. Don’t force the conversation. Instead, try to:
Ask him questions about himself, but be mindful of getting too personal too soon.
Encourage him to relate and connect by also sharing things about yourself.
Make plans with him or exchange contact information. Schedule time with him to get to know him better.
Be open to differences.
Accept that you don’t have to like or agree with everyone you meet. Some differences of opinion can actually make life more interesting, or open your eyes to different ways of thinking. Take time to learn the other person’s perspective.
If someone really irritates you or is different from you and you’re having difficulty relating to her, determine what really bothers you about her.
Focus on her positive attributes or what she contributes.
Avoid trying to change her.
Give it time.
Part of relating is feeling a connection, which usually comes from a certain level of intimacy and trust. This does not happen overnight. Give your relationship with the other person time to grow and progress — don’t try to force a level of intimacy when you haven’t reached that point. Remember that some people are an open book, while others will need more time to reveal themselves to you.
If the other person says he is not comfortable with sharing something, don’t push it. Say something like, “Okay, no problem. Just know I’m here if you ever want to talk about it.”
Show the person over time that you are trustworthy by always following through with your promises, keeping his private business private, admitting when you are wrong, and showing empathy.
Ask about the person’s experience.
Show your concern and care by offering her a safe space to talk about her mental health condition. Encourage her to talk about her feelings and try to listen to her without judging. Ask meaningful questions and be consistent about checking in, as many people with mental health disorders might have difficulty with emotional expression.
You might ask, “How I can support you right now? What do you need?”
Avoid asking questions that have a judgmental tone, such as “Why do you feel that way?”, “What’s wrong with you?”, or “Shouldn’t you be doing better by now?”
Tactfully ask about specific feelings or symptoms that you might not understand, such as what flashbacks or nightmares are like for someone who has been diagnosed with PTSD. You might say something like, “I have never experienced that before. Would you be comfortable telling me what that’s like for you?”
Learn about the person’s disorder.
Make time to research and learn everything you can about his condition. You’ll be better able to understand his perspective and help him if you know about symptoms, treatment, and what to expect for his specific diagnosis.
Look for online resources. The National Alliance on Mental Illness has many resources available for family and friends of people struggling with mental illness.
Look for books at your local library related to his diagnosis. Seek out reliable sources, such as books written by licensed counselors or medical doctors. Consult your librarian or the library’s online portal if you need help.
Talk to his doctor and/or offer to go to doctor’s appointments with him.
Join a support group. Find online forums or local support groups for yourself. For example, if a loved one is struggling with an addiction and you’re having difficulty relating to them, find an Al-Anon support group.
Manage your expectations.
Be patient with the other person and understand that even if she does seek treatment, she may struggle with her symptoms or diagnosis for a long time. She won’t be cured overnight. Expect setbacks to occur and try to remember that the mental illness is not her fault.
Keep in mind that it’s okay to have some healthy expectations, as expecting too little of someone with a mental illness can slow down her recovery process and enable her.
Encourage the other person to get active or stay involved in her treatment.
Don’t expect too much of yourself, either. Offer your help with any small tasks that you can help with, but don’t do too much and burn yourself out. This will lead to resentment and frustration with the other person.
Find different ways to connect with the person.
When someone has a mental illness, he may have difficulty connecting or relating to you in “normal” ways. Keep in mind his unique symptoms when scheduling time with him. Don’t take it too personally if the other person says hurtful things, is irritable, or doesn’t want to spend time with you.
For example, if a person has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder and he is currently in a manic episode, he may have a lot of energy and racing thoughts. Since he is already over-stimulated, try to spend time with him in quiet surroundings, allow him to take short naps if he needs to, and provide small snacks for him since he may have difficulty remembering to eat or sitting still to eat.
If a person has been diagnosed with depression, encourage him to go for a walk or get moving. He may not be motivated, but physical activity with someone else will boost his mood.
Visit the person.
The best way to relate to someone who’s been experiencing poor physical health is to show you care by spending quality time with her. Distract her and make her feel supported rather than isolated by her illness. Try to:
Make regular contact in-person and in other ways, such as writing to her or calling her. Don’t avoid her out of awkwardness or discomfort.
Do something fun with her while you’re there, such as watching a favorite movie, going for a walk, or reading to her.
Make her laugh. Don’t be gloomy every time you go visit.
Talk about shared, fun memories or experiences you had together.
Don’t try to make assumptions or read the other person’s mind about what he needs. Check in on him to better understand how he is feeling.
Ask about his feelings in the face of any diagnosis, whether terminal or not. You might ask, “Are you scared?” or “Are you feeling worried about what’s going to happen next?”
Ask about any experiences or sensations of discomfort. You might ask, “Are you comfortable? Can I get you another pillow?”
Ask what he needs from you. For example, he may need help with paperwork, finances, cooking, or errands.
If the other person has been diagnosed with a terminal illness, you might ask what his preferences are about end-of-life care. Inquire about treatment he is considering and how treatment is going.
You might not know exactly what to say to someone who is sick or dying, but that’s okay. Try to just be accepting of how she is feeling. Be willing to listen to tough or uncomfortable emotions, such as fear or anger.
Let your friend be negative if she needs to be. Don’t force her to be positive or look on the bright side.
Don’t try to fix the problem or offer medical advice.
Avoid making vague statements like saying, “You’re so strong.” While this may be encouraging for some people, others may feel exhausted or invalidated.
Give a caring touch.
Don’t be afraid to provide physical comfort to someone. Your reaction may be to avoid touching someone who is sick or dying, but touch can be very comforting to someone, especially if he is no longer able to talk. You can:
Hold his hand.
Give him a back rub.
Wet his lips with a sponge.
Stroke his hair.