You probably have some friends who need help, and you probably think you know exactly what would help them. Brad needs to stop drifting through college; he should finally settle down and get a practical degree. Mark needs to leave his dead-end job for employment that would be fulfilling. Anne needs to drop a relationship that has been going nowhere for too long. Julie just needs to stop being so negative; anyone else would be happy in her situation.

But your friends seem oblivious. How can you get through to them? The following four steps will help you help them.

1. Silence. Ironically, the first step to helping your friend (and perhaps the most difficult one) is to keep quiet. Though you are anxious to offer your advice, doing so prematurely will backfire.

Rather, create an opportunity to be quiet -- spend a relaxed Sunday afternoon just hanging out together, or invite your friend out for coffee. If that college degree, futile relationship, or other problem comes into the conversation, let your friend speak his or her mind. Put your assumptions aside and just listen. And pay attention, especially for those small problems that have been overlooked and overshadowed by the big issues. "I've been so upset I hardly ate anything in two days." Or, "I've been so frustrated about work that I haven't been able to sleep." With these clues, you are able to move to the next step.

2. Provide basic physical needs. Take that friend who hasn't eaten in days out to lunch, or bring over a stockpile of his favorite foods. Invite your overworked and burned-out friend to a weekend retreat. Common courtesies also should not be underestimated -- a "hello" with a smile, or a phone call just to say, "I've been thinking of you" -- even though nothing "important" is said.

Considering the larger problem, these actions may seem small and insignificant. But until you provide these needs, your friend can't really think about anything beyond the physical discomfort. Noticing the little things (and taking care of them) also builds trust. This may take weeks or months, but it's worth the wait -- you can't really move on to the next step without it.

3. Emotional support. In time your friend may start to discuss the big issues with you. It is still not the time to offer your perfect solution, "All you need to do is find another job!" Rather it is time to offer emotional support, to empathize. "Wow, you really do have a lot invested in this relationship."

This may seem counterproductive -- after all, aren't you validating the very monster you are trying to eradicate? In fact, this is the quickest cure. You need to see the problem from your friend's perspective, and to identify with his or her pain. They need to feel, "Yes, that's exactly the way I feel!" If you do not empathize then your friend will doubt that you really understand them, and then they will doubt that your solution really applies to them.

4. Encouragement. So far you have taken care of your friend's basic needs and built trust. You have shown that you understand his or her difficulty and removed emotional barriers. The only question that remains is: How should you deliver your message? An abrupt, "Quit that job already!" is likely to lose the rapport you have worked so hard to build. Rather, offer gentle encouragement. "You sound so frustrated at that job. I'm sure you could find something you'd be a lot happier with." Any change in a person's life brings with it the fear of the unknown. Your encouragement helps them to overcome that fear.

HELP YOURSELF

These four steps can help us face the challenges in our own lives. The first step is to be silent -- objectively assess your situation as best as you can. List your options and the pro's and con's of each one. But especially look for any side factors that could be contributing to your uneasiness. Have you been eating regularly? Have you been getting sufficient exercise?

The second step is to take care of those physical needs that have been neglected.

The third step is to clarify what you are feeling. Writing a journal is a great way to do this.

The fourth step is to encourage yourself -- tell yourself you can change.