You may have a natural inclination to help others who are going through a tough time. However, if you aren’t careful, you could end up saying or doing something that makes the other person feel invalidated. With this in mind, it really is beneficial to learn effective techniques to use when offering emotional support for others.
- Walk to a private area. It is important to make sure that the person who needs your support feels a sense of confidentiality. An empty room is the best option if it is available. However, an unoccupied corner is sufficient if no rooms are open. Be sure to talk in a low voice, especially if you are in an area where others can potentially walk by and hear.
- Reduce distractions as much as possible. Try to select an area that is quiet where you won’t be distracted by the television, radio or other electronic devices. Also, be sure to avoid doing other things like texting or looking through your wallet while the person is talking.
- An alternative to sitting in a private area would be a “walk and talk.” Instead of sitting in one place, you and the other person could go for a leisurely stroll as you talk. This often allows the person to feel more comfortable discussing her problems.
- Active listening can also be accomplished over the telephone. However, it is important that you have the conversation when there aren’t a lot of distractions.
- Ask questions. You can ask the person about what happened or how she’s feeling. The key here is to assure her that you’re there to listen. It’s important that the person feels like you are truly interested in hearing what she has to say and that you really want to support her.
- Use open-ended questions to help guide the conversation and stir discussion. Good open ended questions will give you a glimpse into what the person is thinking
- Your questions should start with words like “How” and “Why” and should evoke discussion rather than one word responses.
- Some examples of open-ended questions are: “What happened?” “What will you do next?” “How did that make you feel?”
- Listen to the person’s response. Look at the person as she speaks to you and give her your undivided attention. Having your undivided attention will help her feel more valued.
- Making eye contact is important so that the person knows that you are listening to her. However, make sure the eye contact isn’t excessive. Be careful that you don’t end up staring.
- Use open body language and other nonverbal cues to show her that you’re listening. Try nodding occasionally and smiling when appropriate. Also, be sure that you do not cross your arms because this reflects defensiveness and the person may not respond well to that posture.
- Restate what the person is saying. Demonstrating empathy is a key component to helping someone feel supported. To reflect more empathy, it is important that you clearly understand what the person is trying to communicate. Acknowledging and reflecting back to her what she is saying is a great way to make sure that you understand. She’ll also feel more supported and better understood.
- Don’t just repeat back to her the exact same sentence that she states in a robotic fashion. Use paraphrasing to be more conversational in your approach. Just be sure that as you restate what the person is saying, you are using her words. You could say things like “It sounds like you are saying…” or “What I’m hearing is…” or other similar statements. This helps the person to know that you really are listening.
- Don’t interrupt the person when she is talking. Instead, show support by allowing her the opportunity to express what she is thinking and feeling without interruption. Only reflect back what she is saying when there is a natural silence in the conversation or when it’s clear that she’s waiting for feedback.
- This is not the time to pass judgment or be critical. Listening and showing empathy does not mean that you necessarily agree with what the person is saying; rather it is reflecting that you care about her and what she is experiencing. Avoid saying “I told you so,” “It’s really not that big of a deal,” “It can’t be that bad,” “You’re blowing it out of proportion” or other critical or minimizing comments. Your job during this time is simply to show support and empathy.
- Guess what the person is feeling. Try to figure out how the person is feeling as you’re talking. Some people struggle to put a label on their emotions or may even try to mask their feelings. This happens often when other people have criticized their emotional sensitivity in the past. Others may be confused about what they’re feeling. For example, someone may confuse frustration with anger or happiness with excitement. Helping the person identify what she is actually feeling is the first step to validation.
- Don’t tell the person how she is feeling. Instead, provide suggestions. You could say “It sounds like you’re feeling pretty disappointed” or “You seem pretty upset”
- Observe the person’s body language and facial expressions as she speaks. Also, her tone may give you an idea of how she is feeling.
- Remember, if you guess wrong, she will correct you. Do not dismiss her correction. Accept that she is the only person who truly knows how she is feeling. Accepting her correction is also validation of her emotions.
- Focus on understanding the person. This means putting aside your own thoughts or preconceived notions about the situation. Really be present and pay attention to what she is saying. Your agenda should not be to fix the problem or find the solutions. Instead, focus on providing a safe space where the person will feel heard.
- Avoid trying to offer advice unless you are asked. Trying to give advice may make the person feel like you’re being critical and invalidating.
- Do not try to talk the person out of feeling a certain way. Remember, she has a right to feel how she is feeling. Demonstrating emotional support means acceptance of her right to experience her emotions, whatever they are.
- Reassure the person that her feelings are normal. It’s important that the person feels safe expressing her feelings. This is not the time to be critical of the person or the situation. Your goal is to make her feel supported and understood. Simple brief statements are best. Here are some examples of validating statements:
- “That’s a lot to deal with.”
- “I’m sorry that this is happening.”
- “It sounds like that really hurt you.”
- “I understand.”
- “That would make me angry too.”
- Observe your own body language. Most communication is done in a nonverbal manner. This means that your body language is just as important as your verbal language. Make sure your body language reflects that you are paying attention and are demonstrating empathy and not criticism or rejection.
- Try to nod, smile, and make eye contact as you’re listening. Research has shown that people who demonstrate these nonverbal behaviors are often rated as more empathetic by observers.
- Smiling is especially helpful because the human brain is prewired to recognize smiles. This means that not only will she feel more supported but both the giver and receiver of a smile often feel better quicker.
- Ask the person what she wants to do. If the person feels that she needs more emotional support, it’s likely that something is imbalanced in her life. This is a great opportunity to help her explore what actions she can take to become emotionally centered again.
- The person may not have the answer immediately and that’s okay. Don’t push for a decision right away. She may just need to be heard and feel validated first.
- Ask “what-if” questions. “What-if” questions will help the person brainstorm possible action steps that she may not have considered before. Presenting options in a question format is less threatening and the person probably won’t feel like she is being told what to do. This approach allows you to give her suggestions in a supportive manner without stripping away her power.
- Remember, you are not fixing the problem for the person. You are simply providing her support in finding the solution to the problem herself.
- For example, if your friend is struggling financially, you could ask, “What if you and your supervisor had a discussion about a pay raise?” Maybe your niece is feeling overwhelmed with work and home responsibilities. You could ask, “What if you planned a stress-free vacation for your family?” Any appropriate “what-if” question could be helpful.
- Identify an action step. The person may not have all of the answers immediately, but it’s important to support her in taking small steps to resolve the problem. Identifying the next step is important, even if it’s something small like the person agreeing to have another conversation with you the next day. People tend to feel more supported when they know that they have dependable people in their corner who will help them see the bigger picture.
- Continue to support the person in taking action steps until the problem is resolved. It may be a slow process but she’ll appreciate your support.
- When a person is grieving, there may not be any specific action steps. People grieve differently and grief can last up to a year or longer. When you are supporting someone through grief, listening to the stories she wants to share and accepting her feelings without minimizing her loss is very important.
- Sometimes an action step may mean getting help from a mental health professional.
- Show your support in tangible ways. Sometimes it can be convenient to say things like “I’m here for you if you need me” or “Don’t worry. It’s all going to work out” instead of actually doing something to help. However, it’s really important to actually show your support instead of just giving lip service. After spending time actively listening to the person, you’ll probably have some idea about specific things that you could do to help her feel more supported. If you’re stuck, here are some guidelines to get your thoughts rolling:
- Rather than saying “Everything will be fine” you could do everything in your power to help make things better for the person. For example, you could help a sick friend find a good medical specialist or help her research treatment options.
- In addition to saying “I love you” you could do something for the person that you know she’ll appreciate. This could include buying her a gift, spending more time with her, or taking her somewhere special to help her de-stress.
- Instead of just saying “I’m here for you” you could bring the person dinner or help with tasks that she needs to do in order to accomplish the action steps.
- Follow up with the person. Everyone has a schedule and things get hectic sometimes, but it’s important to make time to help the person. She has probably received a lot of verbal support, but this deeper level of support would be appreciated much more. Remember, small acts of kindness really do go a long way.
- Don’t minimize the person’s experience. Although it may not seem significant to you, if she is experiencing emotional distress then the situation it’s probably pretty stressful for her.
- Avoid giving your opinion unless you are asked directly for feedback. There is a time and place to give unsolicited advice, especially in dangerous situations. However, if the situation just warrants you showing emotional support, it’s best to avoid giving your opinion until she asks for it.
- Remember, being supportive doesn’t mean you agree with the person’s decision. If you think that something is detrimental, you don’t have to agree with the person to show emotional support.
- When you are exploring solutions, using “What-if” questions is a great way to suggest healthier more balanced solutions without appearing overpowering.
- Remember, you aren’t making the decisions for the person. Your job is to show support and assist her in making her own decisions.
- Make sure you’re calm. Before attempting to provide support for someone else, make sure that you are in an emotionally healthy place yourself. It doesn’t do her – or you – any good if you are frantic yourself as you attempt to provide her with support.
- Be sure that you follow through with whatever you commit to doing to help out. It is better to volunteer for things that you know you can really commit to rather than risk disappointing the person by going back on your word later.
- Stay focused on the other person. Be careful about sharing your own experiences when you’re trying to show support to others. Although it is sometimes effective to share your own experiences, at other times it may backfire particularly if the person feels that you are trying to minimize their situation or feelings. So it’s probably best to stay focused on her situation.
- Gut feelings can help when you are trying to understand the other person and show empathy. It’s okay to go with your gut when guessing what someone is feeling or making suggestions. However, if the person corrects you, accept her correction. Unconditional acceptance is a huge part of emotional support.
- Research has shown that some physical touch is good when you’re trying to show support. However, it is very important that you limit the touching unless you know the person well. A hug might be okay for a good friend but for an acquaintance even a simple hug might trigger a trauma related response. So be sure to limit touching and ask permission before hugging another person.
- If you are showing support during a crisis, be sure to be observant of your environment to ensure everyone’s safety. If medical assistance is needed, make that a priority.
- Provide Emotional Support
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- Give Praise Instead of Criticism
- Support Someone With Anorexia
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