We all have times in our lives when things do not go our way.
There are times when we are not feeling strong, emotionally. Maybe we are going through a difficult time or had a bad day. We turn to our loved ones and sometimes even strangers for support.
We all want to be listened to without judgment. We do not want to be corrected or advised. We simply want to be heard and understood and feel supported.
What is support?
Support is offering your ear to let someone work their sh*t out. It is holding space so that they feel safe from judgment and have permission to just sit with their feelings. Support is showing you trust someone to do what they think is the right thing.
There are all kinds of support. But my guess is that you could use some pointers on how to be more supportive with your friends and family.
Take, for example, you recently learn that your 34-year-old next-door neighbor who has two young children, is in the middle of a nasty divorce, and she just found out her company is relocating her and she has three months to move.
Below are some samples of helpful ways in which support can be offered:
>> Expressions of empathy, love, trust, and caring.
>> You listen without interruption or judgment. You give your neighbor the space to work her problem out loud. You provide validating statements.
>> Tangible aid and service.
>> You offer to watch her children after work for an hour or two so she can pack.
>> Advice, suggestions, and information.
>> You provide your neighbor with a referral for a mediator or divorce attorney and/or a moving company. Or you provide your friend with the name and number of someone you know who lives in her new city.
>> Information that is useful for self-evaluation.
>> You remind your neighbor how strong she is and what she has done in the past to help her see that she is strong and capable and will get through this.
Support is always intended to be helpful, but sometimes the support we think we are providing has the opposite effect. Our support is offered with emotional strings.
Below are some tips on what to do and what not to do when providing emotional support.
Ask open-ended questions: Open-ended questions give the person an opportunity to share.
“You seem a little upset today. Would you like to talk about it?”
“I know your team had a loss today. How have you been holding up?”
Show up: Small gestures are better than no gesture. Text, call, email, social media message, mail something, show up with food, bring a stuffed animal, send a cute animal video.
Trust: Help the person work out their options.
Perspective: Help the person look at different options, possibilities—this helps someone put things in perspective and helps someone feel that they are not stuck.
“Let’s look at your options”
Personalize: If someone is asking you specifically for your advice, opinion, or to tell them what to do, make sure to word it in a way that keeps it personal.
“In my experience…”
“I always feel better when…”
“What has helped me in the past…”
Listen: Let silence happen. Silence is time for processing. Silence can provide some space and time so the person can work through something in their head. Silence often will generate more talking on their part. Your job is to simply listen.
Shut the f*ck up: Do not ask clarifying questions. Just let the person speak. It does not need to make sense to you. You are there to give the person a safe space to express themselves.
Difference between supportive listening and fact-finding listening. One is to comfort and the other is to take over a situation. They are not the same. Support is about trust, while fact-finding is about control.
Be present: Listen with your full attention. Turn your body toward the person. Keep your eyes focused on the person. Avoid looking at your watch or your phone.
Validate their emotional state: Sometimes, giving a name to the emotion can help calm down someone when in distress. Validating statements address how someone is feeling.
“That must be scary.”
“I bet you feel angry.”
Be genuine: Don’t worry about what to say or what to do. Just being with someone while they are suffering is helpful. When you are fully present to those that are close to you, words are not necessary. Your presence is felt.
Respect their decisions: It does not matter if you agree with the way that they handle their problem or agree with what they decide to do. Support for the person does not mean you have to support their decision. However, keep your opinion to yourself. Show you respect your loved one by reinforcing that he or she knows what is best for himself or herself.
“Are you happy with your decision?”
“You must feel relieved now that you made a decision.”
“I am so proud of you.”
“I knew you would figure something out.”
Offer a physical hand: This obviously is not appropriate for all situations. But sometimes a simple hand on the shoulder or on someone’s hand can be very comforting. Do not touch someone unless you have an intimate relationship with him or her. Offering a hug or a hand can provide comfort, but this can also be extremely invasive if someone wants to be left alone. Be mindful that what may be comforting to you, may not be for someone else.
What support sounds like:
“You’ve got this.”
“Way to go!”
“Hang in there.”
“Thinking about you.”
“I am here for you.”
“Can I get you a drink or something to eat?”
“Can I give you a ride somewhere?”
“Is there someone I can call?”
“I love you.”
“I’m proud of you.”
What support does not sound like.“
“Why didn’t you…”
“I think you would feel better if…”
“I wouldn’t have…”
“You did the right thing…”
Offer advice or your opinion: Do not offer suggestions or advice unless you have specifically been asked to. And even then, it is best to preface with “I don’t know what I would do in your situation, but have you considered…?”
Use a version of should: Never use statements that begin with: “You should have…” or “You should…” or “You shouldn’t have…” or “You shouldn’t…” or ” Who the f*ck do you think you are!”
Make it about you: Do not make it about you. The quickest way to shut someone down when trying to comfort the person is to one-up them: “Well. you think you have it bad, I…”
Use guilt: This is an extension of making it about you. Statements that put ownership on the person who you are trying to comfort.
“Why did I have to find out from…?”
“You don’t trust me?”
“I didn’t hear back. Call me so I can stop worrying.”
Try to fix it: When someone comes to you, respect your friend by helping them to fix their own problem. Rather, use statements that show that you are on their side. “We will get through this together.” “I am not going anywhere.”
Add stress: Avoid adding responsibilities to someone’s stress by asking questions that require them to do something.
”Did you get my package, card…?”
“I want to send something but need your address, size etc.”
Do your homework and do not add pressure on somebody you are trying to support.
Have expectations: Do not have any expectation of staying involved in the decision-making process. You are not entitled to a play by play. Your curiosity is your problem. Your desire to know how things turned out is not the same as offering support. Instead of asking something like “So…what happened….did you break up with him?”—replace with “Just checking in on you” or “I was just thinking about you. Hope you are well.” If they want to keep you in the loop, they will.
Minimize: Just because something may not seem like a big deal to you, it is to this person at a particular time. Your opinion only will serve to alienate your friend.
“It could be worse.”
“Look at the bright side.”
“Could you imagine if…”
Even when you are trying to help cheer them up, this only invalidates their feelings.
Play mind-reader: It is unhelpful for you to try to make someone feel better by making predictions or using statistics to show the odds of things turning out differently. This is especially important when someone is challenged with miscarriage and/or terminal illness. Examples of this include: “It will all be fine, I know it.” “You’re fine.” “It’s God’s plan.”
Gossip: And, whatever you do—do not break your friend’s trust by sharing their problem, situation, or feelings with anyone else.
The only exception is when you are given an explicit request to do so. A recent widow may ask you to share the news of death with others to help relieve them of the burden and relive the pain. However, the moment a person feels like you have an ulterior motive or intention, your friend will no longer feel like you are a safe person to share something with and shut down.
Regarding follow up
When someone has confided in you, never ever bring it up again.
It is always better to let the other person be the one to bring up a sensitive topic. Open-ended general questions can give an opportunity for the person to share news or an update. If they deem you a safe person, they will keep you in the loop.
So often, we are so happy that someone trusts us with their most personal matters. It is an act of intimacy whenever someone is able to be vulnerable with another. Do not take advantage of these special moments by trying to “repeat” them. Often, we want to regain the intimacy and we try to recreate a situation to make someone else feel vulnerable. Sometimes it can feel powerful when someone else is in their weakened state. But understand, that this behavior or need for unbalance in a relationship borders on codependent behavior. It is called the rescue syndrome or white knight syndrome.
If there is a question of whether you should offer comfort or truth when asked for advice—always opt for comfort. Truth can be subjective.
Caution: It can be tricky to offer support to someone you are not close to. Be careful what you promise and how much you can give because once you cross that bridge, it is more damaging to walk away. In other words, do not give more than you are comfortable maintaining.
It is never too late to say you are sorry. “I’m sorry I was not there for you when you needed me. But I am here now.”
Notice who is supportive in your life. Often, we focus on who was not there when we needed them, instead of who was.
How supportive are you? You may have good intentions but maybe you have inadvertently fallen into one of the many do not dos above.
Do not re-burden the suffering. “Let me know what I can do. Keep me updated.” This is not cool to do to someone. The person who is struggling should not be responsible for making you feel comfortable and better. Just do something.
Some practical things you can do in most situations are:
Grocery shopping. Ask others if the suffering has food restrictions. Do not ask the person.
Clean up. Wash their car.
Pick up prescriptions.
Drop off a meal, plant, stuffed animal, candy, magazine, balloon—whatever fits the situation.
Most people just need to talk or need to be distracted to get some perspective. If they are sick, they might prefer to not be talking about their illness all the time. Just be there. Play music, or make jokes, play games, show cute cat video, meditate with them.
Support is needed both when something bad happens, but also when something good happens. Think about who is the first person you call to tell with good news. Is it the same person who you call with bad news or when need to talk to someone? Why do you think that is?