Someone we know may be going through a tough patch now: someone is trying to cope with a loss, someone could be feeling anxious about the Covid19 situation, someone could have just gotten into a fight with a loved one, someone could be struggling with work. Do yo know how to support them?

Not all of us are trained to provide mental health interventions but all of us have the capacity to show support for one another. We could offer some kindness, some compassion and encouragement, some practical support through our actions.  

When we are suffering and we are met with kindness and compassion in our immediate environment, we are likely to feel safer. When we feel better connected, we may feel more hopeful about getting help and being helped. 

Often, I hear people say they do not know what to say to someone who could be hurting, for fear of causing further harm, even with good intentions, we may cause more harm. I hope this post could shed some light on how we can support others and what we should avoid.  

1. To be supportive, check in with yourself first. 

How is your headspace and your heart-space? Accept that you may not be able to support someone else well if you are feeling out of sorts yourself. Will you be genuinely interested in what the person has to say? If you choose to set aside your own unmet needs during the conversation, remember to attend to them after. As Penny Reid quote goes, “don’t set yourself on fire to keep others warm”.  You can read my post on self-care to attend to your own needs.

Avoid supporting others when you are going through a bad patch. You may end up making the conversations about yourself or you may not be able to differentiate your feelings from the person who is hurting. If you can’t offer good support them, rearrange another time to be there for them or simply offer some words of encouragement and care. 

2. Offer compassionate presence. 

When we attend to people with an intention to show care, we demonstrate kindness. When we attend to a person who is hurting, we are being compassionate: we may not know how to help, but we know that being there is helpful. We show willingness to explore ways to help this person. When we are present without judgement, we demonstrate respect and openness to the other’s experience.  

If the person is not willing to talk, just be with them. I liked this article on Beyond Blue Australia on “10 ways to be there for someone”.

Avoid doing something else during a conversation like scrolling on IG, playing a game while saying you are listening. Sure, if the conversation is about who should go get toilet paper, you can do so. But if the conversation is about difficult events and sharing of thoughts and feelings about it, being fully present demonstrates support. Even ten minutes of undivided attention can do wonders. Be present and accept what is being said or not said.  

3. Support by listening: Listen to understand, respond with empathy. 

Many trainings on effective communications begin with building listening skills. To be there for someone, we need to tune in to what they are saying. Let them speak freely. When we are listening, we could respond periodically and communicate what we think we heard. This allows the speaker to indicate whether we are comprehending what was said.

Listening to understand takes practice. Some people may be natural at this, some people not so. But listening to understand is a skill that can be learnt and practised. To find out more about empathy, you could read this article which I enjoyed, by Enid Spitz on Heartmanity’s Blog about “The Three Kinds of Empathy”.

Avoid listening to respond. When we are waiting for the person to finish their sentence so we can say or ask something, we are not listening attentively. If you find yourself going to give some advice, pause. Wait a bit longer; keep listening. 

4. Communicate support.

Ask the person what they would like from you. Perhaps all they want is to be able to talk, to ventilate, to bounce off ideas. Maybe they would like some advice. Keep listening and help them find out the crux of their issue and naturally they may have their own answers to their problems. Highlight the person’s strengths and how they have demonstrated resilience.  

Avoid giving advice from the start. Make space for people to tap on their own inner resources, facilitate creative problem-solving if they are really looking for solutions. I like Michael Bungay Stanier’s work on “The Advice Trap”: the problem isn’t the advice, it’s giving the advice. Check out this less than 15min TED Talk on “How to Tame your Advice Monster”.

5. Encourage the person to seek help from a professional, if needed. 

We may not be the best person to solve the problems presented. While communicating support, we could build on the person’s ecosystem of support and wellness by pointing them to other resources within the community.  

Avoid being the only source of support for people who are going through a tough time. The load can be heavy for one, less heavy for two but can become manageable with more helpful hands on deck. Get the appropriate help. 

To conclude:

I want to share a recent personal experience that shows how we can show up for someone feeling stressed and support them: 

I was anxious about my current laptop and my friend Me listened in and helped me figure out the important factors that would ultimately influence my decision to buy a new laptop. She shared her own experiences looking for a new laptop, accompanied me when I wanted to browse some models at the shops. She suggested what I could look out for. No imposing her ideas on me, she gave resources to refer to and offered to be there for me again if I needed. She helped me out when I did not even know what to ask the sales assistant. I felt supported and helped. Mel didn’t judge me for knowing nothing much about laptops (honestly, figuring out tech gadgets can be pretty daunting for me). She helped me believe that I have the means to figure out what I need.  

Thank you, Mel!  

Further reading

If you are interested to learn more, there are several models that you could refer to, when you would like to provide first-line emotional support for others.  Guy Winch delivered a popular talk on TedX, about emotional first aid. He wrote a book about the topic too and shared some pointers on how we could look after emotional injuries. The World Health Organisation (WHO) shared a great guide promoting psychological first aid. In the pdf you can find good information on how we can support others in the aftermath of crisis events, using a simple model: “Prepare, Look, Listen, Link”.

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