Last month, I was video chatting with a friend, and the conversation turned challenging. She told me she’d recently been laid off, then days later, learned her sister had been diagnosed with a severe case of COVID-19. On top of all this, she’s a first-time mom raising a 1-year-old boy.

Upon hearing him wail from the other room, she gave a defeated sigh, and said she’d be right back after going to check on him. I was thankful for the pause in conversation as I was quite at a loss for what to say.

I tried to think of something, anything I could offer to be helpful or make things seem better than they appeared, but nothing was coming. I was afraid I’d have to sign off and leave her in this hopeless state.

Then — like an old friend just waiting to be of service — my improv training from 10 years ago suddenly kicked in.

“Yes, I can imagine how scary and exhausting all these developments have been and continue to be for you,” I told her. “And I know things might get worse before they get better, but know I’m here for you anytime you want to vent, talk through stuff or work on a plan of action.”

In short: I “Yes, and-ed” her, which is what acting improvisors do to support their partner in a scene.

It was like a light came on. My friend opened up and began talking more specifically about her feelings, to which I listened intently. Her issues were by no means solved by the end of the conversation, but she seemed far less resigned than she did at the start.

This experience reminded me how important it is to not only listen but to practice empathy — and use the tools in your toolbox to do it.

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Illustration by Brittany England

It can be hard to know what to say when things seem so bleak, but this simple “Yes, and” improv rule has helped me tap into useful empathy every time. It’s because the guidelines that help you be successful in improv are almost interchangeable with those that make you a good friend:

  1. Listen more than talk.
  2. Never dismiss or try to fix someone’s feelings or ideas.
  3. Always validate and build upon what your partner brings to you.

Empathetic listening is not the easiest skill to master, especially in today’s world when so many different things are vying for our attention.

The “yes, and” approach forces you to listen first, then respond off of what you’ve just heard rather than simply wait to speak.

ClayDrinko PhD, author of Theatrical Improvisation, Consciousness, and Cognition, and Play Your Way Sane, says that this method allows people to tune into their conversation partner and tune out their own personal agenda.

“Yes, And-ing really requires me to listen and be open to what they’re saying,” he explains. “It also means I need to be curious about them, instead of preoccupied with myself. I also can’t jump to conclusions or make assumptions.”

In order for an improvisational scene to work, you have to support your partner’s journey. The same is true for any relationship, especially when someone’s going through a trying time. However, we can often pivot to talking about ourselves or offering blanket advice due to our discomfort with the conversation.

You might think you’re being helpful in the moment, but comparing your situation to someone else’s negates their unique feelings and experience. This is where another improv rule comes into play — explore the scene that’s in front of you, and make it about your scene partner.

“If we’re following the improv principles, we actually need to fill out the scene that has already started,” says Drinko. “That means exploring more details of what your friend just said and not changing the subject or giving advice. It’s about playing and exploring and not shutting down and putting a neat bow on things.”

Anyone who’s done or watched improv knows that humor is a big part of the draw. It’s versatility can also be helpful when it comes to providing support for loved ones. When someone is feeling emotionally vulnerable, they might put up walls. Humor can help break them down.

“Improv helps us open up because we’re not arguing or shutting each other down,” says Drinko. “This helps build trust and makes people less afraid of making mistakes and taking risks.”

The organization, Social Theatre™ utilizes cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) tools to help bolster social skills. Some of those include listening without judgement, accepting, and supporting what you’re or someone else is feeling.

“Through humor, it is much easier to digest our challenges,” says Shawn Amador, therapist and founder of Social Theatre™. “Research has shown that humor is one of the most effective coping skills of stress and depression.”

But perhaps one of the most important tools is being mindful, or present in the moment with the person you’re trying to support.

Being mindful or present is at the root of successful improv, because it means you’re receptive to whatever happens next.

“Without mindfulness, improv would not be doable,” says Amador. The same could be said for being truly empathetic.

Dr. Stacia Casillo, Director of the Ross Center in New York says this is why improv training can improve social skills and help people be better support systems.

“[Improv] requires a person to be in the moment and present, to actively listen, to be nonjudgmental, and to respond in order to keep the flow of the scene — all skills that can enhance social interactions,” Casillo notes.

Unsurprisingly, there are a number of improv training programs across the country specifically targeted toward building social skills and emotional well-being. However, Casillo cautions against solely relying on improv training, especially for someone who’s suffering from severe social anxiety.

“You want to be cautious of someone with significant anxiety enrolling in an improv class, expecting it to help with their anxiety around social interactions,” explains Casillo. “Without additional therapeutic support, they may feel discouraged and consequently unlikely to seek additional professional help.”

When I’m listening to someone’s troubles, I often feel this desire to offer solutions. This is usually not the way to help people feel better. I’m not saying you can’t make suggestions that might be useful. But personal, emotional issues can only really be solved by the person who’s experiencing them.

Also, people tend to not appreciate it when someone tries to “fix” them. Take it from Drinko, who learned that lesson firsthand when he volunteered as a crisis counselor.

“Most callers didn’t want me to fix their problems. They wanted to feel seen and heard and valued,” notes Drinko.

That said, there are ways to tell if a loved one may need more help than a supportive friend can give.

Warning signs that more support is needed for a friend:

  • They tell you they’ve had thoughts about hurting themselves.
  • They’re coping with distress by engaging in high-risk behavior like excessive drug and alcohol use.
  • Their daily activities have changed: oversleeping, eating poorly, withdrawing from friends and family, and feeling unable to keep up with work.

And if your loved one just comes out and says they think they might need to see a therapist, it’s a good idea to “yes, and” that decision. They’ve likely noticed some of these signs themselves, and are looking for support from someone they trust.

If you give your wholehearted approval and tell them you’ll be there for them no matter how things go, you can’t be a much better friend than that.

Ally Hirschlag is a writer and editor at weather.com. Her work has been featured in Cosmo, Allure, Audubon, Huffington Post, Mic, Teen Vogue, McSweeney’s, and elsewhere. Follow her musings on Twitter and Facebook.