A good rule of thumb is that you should listen twice as much as you speak. Perhaps it helps if you know that what people report they want most from a confidant is just someone to listen. They don’t necessarily want someone to solve their problems, but to be heard and to know that they aren’t alone in their struggles. That’s often all that is needed, so don’t feel that you must come up with a solution or put an end to all of someone’s troubles. You’re doing plenty without it.
And, most importantly, remember that you are listening to someone who may have strong feelings and be reasoning emotionally. Thus, what you hear is their version of events (at the moment you hear it), with a potentially different story on the other side. You can be helpful if you encourage someone to consider the feelings of others, but this too may have to wait. They may not be ready to do so until they have really vented their own feelings and worked out their frustrations.
You should resist taking sides. The last thing you want to do is get in the middle, or be accused of it, or validate someone who is not being reasonable. Don’t jump to conclusions and don’t even feel like you always have to come to a conclusion. If you can do that, you might also prevent yourself from giving false hope, which never helps any more than does unwarranted pessimism.
Being supportive may mean just being available while letting someone work out his or her own issues over time. Determining by yourself what they should do, how it should turn out, and trying to unduly influence them in that direction can get in the way. Furthermore, if you are thought of as biased in one direction, they may not take you seriously or may think less of what you suggest.
Possibly the worst thing I see people do when they listen to someone else is to give flippant advice. People will say, “You should leave your husband” or “Quit your job, you can find another one” without considering how dramatic such a change may be for someone. After years invested in a relationship, it can be hard to leave, even if that proves to be the only possible outcome. And nobody wants to give up on a career path they have chosen until it is unavoidable.
These are some basic suggestions, but they reflect my idea of what people most need to remember when they try to be helpful, based on feedback our clients give me. Hopefully, however, this gives you some good food for thought about your own style of being a confidant.