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How to give emotional support

Emotional support comes in many forms. What isn’t acceptable is avoiding someone in the face of adversity. This happened to me when I lost my dad suddenly nearly 18 years ago....

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Emotional support

Emotional support comes in many forms. What isn’t acceptable is avoiding someone in the face of adversity. This happened to me when I lost my dad suddenly nearly 18 years ago. A close friend of mine became quite distant for a while. When he reappeared, he told me that he’d kept his distance “for obvious reasons”.

I couldn’t work out what the obvious reasons were supposed to be. Not acknowledging someone’s pain is at best unhelpful and at worst plain ignorant.

This memory was triggered again this week when my son moved to go to university. It was a painful experience to acknowledge that his childhood was over. Whilst it’s what I wanted for him and to be celebrated, the loss is similar to grief. Colleagues at work knew that it was difficult for me, but only one asked how I was coping. I was enraged, disappointed and hurt by the colleagues that seemingly didn’t care.

Why it’s important to think of others

Whilst it’s normal to get consumed in our own lives, life is about connectivity with others and taking the time to ask those around you how they are (and to actually listen to the answer) gives people an opportunity to process their thoughts and feelings and gives them emotional support. And it’s something that tends to be reciprocated; if you do if for them, they will likely do you the same favour and this helps everyone to feel heard and to feel better. It’s also a caring thing to do and as human beings, we should care about others and show up authentically.

How to show up emotionally

Observe and ask.

Take the time to listen to others about what is going on in their lives and if you want to provide some emotional support, asking some questions is a good place to start. This will be tailored to the situation but you can acknowledge their situation and ask if they are coping okay and if they need any support.  Here are a couple of example questions:

  • “You seem a little upset today. Would you like to talk about it?”
  • “I know your boss was giving you a tough time. How have you been holding up?”

If you know someone has faced some challenges and aren’t sure how to open a conversation, try starting with some general questions, such as, “What’s been happening in your life lately?”

Listen

It’s not enough to just ask about someone’s wellbeing, make sure you listen. Show up authentically. Steer clear of any distractions such as mobile phones. Look at them, use body language such as nodding to signal that you’re heard and understood, a touch of the arm to show that you’re present and care, face them and look at them, not something over their shoulder. Summarise what they’ve said and ask for clarification if you haven’t understood everything.

Don’t minimise

Just because you don’t understand why that person is going through a difficult time doesn’t mean it’s not real. Everything is relative and it’s how they feel that is important.

Don’t try to steer the conversation away from their problem by pointing to one which you perceive to be worse. This denies their experience and often implies they shouldn’t feel bad in the first place. No matter how trivial you think someone’s concern is, avoid brushing it off.

Validate

Think about the last time you went through something difficult. You probably wanted to talk to someone about the problem, but you may not have necessarily wanted them to fix it for you or make it go away. Maybe you just wanted to vent your frustration or disappointment and get some soothing acknowledgement in return.

Support doesn’t require you to fully understand a problem or provide a solution. Often, it involves nothing more than validation. The support people often want most is recognition of their distress. So, when a loved one or friend tells you about the challenges they’re going through, they may not need you to jump in and help. You might offer the best support simply by showing concern and offering a caring presence.

Some validating phrases you can use are:

  • “I’m sorry you’re dealing with that situation. It sounds so painful.”
  • “That sounds so upsetting. I understand why you’re feeling so stressed right now.”

Avoid advice, support instead

You might think you’re helping someone by telling them how to fix a problem. But, generally speaking, people don’t want advice unless they request it. Provide emotional support by holding a space for them and use reflective questions that might ease them into their own conclusions. For example, ask them what may have helped previously in a similar situation or if there is anything they think that might help them to feel a bit better.

If the person comes up with some solutions that you don’t necessarily agree with, avoid pushing your point of view through. Just because their approach doesn’t resonate with you, doesn’t mean they’re wrong and you’re right and pointing out the flaws may only serve to drag the down.

Praise

If someone is feeling down about a mistake they think they made, then it can be appropriate to remind them of their successes and good character traits. Just because something went wrong this time, doesn’t mean they always make that mistake and point out the good things they do and have done (although don’t overdo it to the point that it sounds unauthentic). This form of encouragement can help to lift someone’s mood and stop them from spiralling backwards.

Touch and hug

The power of touch is a wonderful thing. Depending on your relationship with the person, kisses, touches and hugs can be extremely therapeutic and healing.

Do something nice

Someone trying to manage emotional turmoil may have less mental capacity for dealing with their usual responsibilities. After you’ve listened and validated their feelings, you can also show compassion by helping lighten their burden, if at all possible. You don’t have to do anything grand or sweeping. In fact, little things can often have more impact, especially when your actions show you truly heard and understood their words. Offer to help them with chores or buy them a bunch of flowers, for example.

Distract

Once they’ve had a chance to talk and process the issue, arranging an activity that might help to take their mind away from their issue can be a good idea. They might want to distract themselves from stress and worry but not know where to begin. Aim for a fun, low-key activity you can reschedule if they don’t feel up to it. A walk. meal out or perhaps a craft or game, for example.

Check back in

It’s easy to forget the person that is facing a difficult situation once you’ve walked away and gone back to your own life. Remember to check back in with your friend or loved one to see how they are getting on and continue to offer emotional support. People like to know that you care and are still thinking about them. Think about how it makes you feel. A simple, “Hey, I just wanted to see how you were coping after the other day. I know it can take some time to heal or adapt after this sort of event so I want you to know I’m here for you.”

Final thoughts

Whilst we can’t solve other people’s problems or make their hurt go away, we can be there for them. Remember, it’s more important to be genuinely caring than to say all the right things. Holding a space for someone to cry, to talk and to process their tough situation is all that’s required and is an invaluable act of kindness, one that we should all give and receive.

It’s more important to be genuinely caring than to say all the right things.

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