As the song goes, “I’ll be there for you…” All types of relationships are built on mutual support, but it’s sometimes hard to know how to be supportive besides quoting the Friends theme song.
There are as many ways to be supportive as there are people in the world, as every situation calls for a different kind of support. Still, there are a few universal truths to remember. Start by listening with an open mind and no judgment and avoid making promises you can’t keep. And while kind thoughts and words are great, it’s actions that matter.
In this article, I’ll take a look at how to be supportive in different situations and share my favorite actionable tips.
Different people need different kinds of support
Supportiveness is something we tend to value highly in both others and ourselves. We expect support from our friends and generally strive to support our friends in return.
Yet as you probably know, different people and different situations call for different kinds of support, which can lead to misunderstandings and hurt.
For example, a previous partner of mine was extremely rational and I lean more emotionally. His way of supporting me was to problem-solve, which irritated me to no end when I needed someone to listen to me vent.
And sometimes, even if it doesn’t lead to hurt, we just can’t provide the support people need. My mom is currently renovating her kitchen and I was keen to help. However, I’m not of much use at installing new ceiling tiles (I’m afraid of heights) or lifting up heavy wallboards (my strength is internal), and any attempt to provide financial support was rebuffed.
You probably have your own examples of well-meaning attempts to help that didn’t come out as planned. Support is always very personal and individual and there is no one way to be supportive.
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Support during trying times
There are plenty of times in our lives when we might need some kind of support and many of them are not pleasant. Illnesses and losing a loved one spring to mind, although they aren’t definitely the only instances our friends might need help.
Still, research is mainly – and perhaps understandably – occupied with the expectations we have for support during tough times. And even in the toughest of times, people can have very different expectations for different people in their support network.
For example, a 2020 study on Indian cancer patients showed that while patients expected the immediate family to be emotionally available and help with navigating the hospital system, the role of relatives and friends was to give advice and provide tangible aid and services. Oncologists and other cancer patients also have distinct roles in the support network, namely to be the primary medical decision-maker and help to cope with the illness, respectively.
In their 2008 book Effective Grief and Bereavement Support, Norwegian psychologists Atle and Kari Dyregrov write that the bereaved mostly expect actions, not words, of support.
Well-meant words of support are appreciated, but only to an extent. “It does not help the bereaved that others are thinking a great deal about them when one doesn’t know about it,” one bereaved person states.
Instead, friends and family should pay a visit to the bereaved, and spend a night if possible. Help with everyday things like cooking and cleaning or running errands is also appreciated.
Dyregrovs’ book also includes the story of a mother who lost her son to suicide, whose greatest wish was that the support of family and friends would last longer than the first few weeks after the loss. She says:
Friends were very much there for me, immediately, then. But then, gradually, there is nobody around who can be bothered to hear how it’s going.Kari Dyregrov
Everyday support is just as important
All of that being said, things don’t have to go south for your friend, partner, family member, or yourself to need help.
From helping a friend move to hyping up your partner while they apply for a promotion, there are all sorts of situations where people might need a helping hand or a shoulder to lean on.
Generally, it’s a good idea to ask how you can help. Sometimes you can offer very practical things like driving your friend to the airport before dawn or helping them carry a washing machine up 5 flights of stairs.
Other times, the best thing you can do is just listen without having to say anything. Whether your friend wants to vent after a stressful day or just needs a sounding board to figure out a difficult life decision, all you need to do is be ready to listen.
How to be more supportive
As I’ve said, there’s no one way to be supportive, but there are a few basics to keep in mind when you’re seeking to support your loved ones. Here are 5 tips on how to be supportive in different situations.
1. Leave your opinions at the door
We all have our thoughts about other people’s lives. It’s completely normal and okay to have an opinion on your best friend’s new boyfriend or your parents’ choices in interior decorating.
But when your loved one comes to you for support, it’s best not to voice these opinions, unless they are specifically asked for. Just take time to listen and help them discuss their worries.
It should be noted that if your loved ones are in danger or actively harming themselves, you should talk about it. But even then, avoid making judgments or giving ultimatums. In such situations, people need patience and understanding more than anything. Harsh words, even if they come from love, are anything but supportive.
2. Practice active listening
Active listening or empathetic listening is an invaluable life skill to master. It’s also a great way to make the people you care about feel supported.
Some tips for practicing active listening are:
- Maintain eye contact during the conversation.
- Face and lean towards the person who needs your support.
- Nod your head to encourage them to keep speaking.
- Avoid interrupting the person while they’re speaking.
- Paraphrase what they shared and repeat it back to them as if to clarify.
- Ask thoughtful questions at appropriate moments.
- Don’t rush them. Let them linger on the topic for as long as they need to.
- Don’t change the topic without addressing what they said.
If you want more tips on how to be a better listener, we’ve got you covered.
3. Set boundaries
This might sound counterintuitive, but clear boundaries are an essential part of any relationship. Setting boundaries will avoid hurt and misunderstandings later on.
For example, if you know that you don’t have the capacity to answer 4 AM distress calls or that you aren’t the person to turn to in an emergency, be clear about that. If you’re struggling with your own mental health, it’s best if you don’t take responsibility for another’s.
Here’s a complete article that will help you set boundaries with others.
4. Ask caring questions
If you genuinely don’t know how best to support someone during a difficult time, you can try to ask them. Don’t be afraid to ask how you can best support someone in need.
However, if they evade or dismiss the question, you might need to ask something more specific. Some examples of questions you could ask are:
- “What’s been on your mind lately? Would you like to talk about it?”
- “I’ve been thinking about you. How are you, really?”
- “The last time we spoke, you were worried about ___. How is that going?”
Of course, the most supportive questions to ask are specific to the person. If your partner is suffering from a depressive episode, ask what activities they find bearable right now and if they have the energy to do them with you.
If your friend is heartbroken over a breakup and refuses to go outside, ask if you can grab their favorite ice cream flavor and bottle of wine from the store.
5. Don’t make promises you can’t keep
This goes along with setting boundaries. The best way to be supportive is to be supportive within your means. Don’t promise to help your friend financially when you’re struggling yourself, or to always be there for them when you’re short on time.
Likewise, it’s tempting to say comforting words like “it will get better”, but it’s not something you can actually promise. Instead, try something that validates the hardships without making impossible promises: ”I know it’s hard to believe that things will get better, but I believe in you. Let me know if there’s anything I can do to help you through this.”
Here’s an interesting article about how to show compassion that may be of more help.
6. Offer practical help
When a loved one is dealing with grief or illness, a simple question of “how can I help?” may be too much for them. Instead, offer specific and practical things, like walking the dog, getting groceries, or simply staying with them for a while.
Don’t be discouraged if your initial offers are met with shrugs and mutterings of “I don’t know”. It can sometimes take a little time for people to warm up to the idea of being helped.
7. Be proactive
If you find yourself thinking of a friend, drop them a message. If something reminds you of your mom, give her a call. Like the quote above says, it doesn’t people do any good that you’re thinking about them a lot. Thoughts and prayers matter little unless they are expressed.
Being proactive about your relationships makes them stronger and it’s easier for both you and the other party to seek help when you need it. For example, I avoided telling one of my best friends about a breakup for several weeks, because we hadn’t talked in a while and I didn’t want her to think that I only talk to her when I need support.
8. Validate their feelings
One of the best ways to offer someone support is to validate their lived experience. It lets them know that you recognize their struggle as real and painful. It also encourages them to continue sharing their honest perspective with you.
Sometimes, all we need is someone to acknowledge the existence of our suffering to feel better. We want someone to try to understand our feelings even if they don’t necessarily agree with them.
And yet, so many of us skip this essential step to being supportive and dive straight into problem-solving mode. If you have the tendency to forget emotional validation and focus on solutions, here are a few validating statements to try:
- “I understand why you would feel that way.”
- “That makes a lot of sense.”
- “That must be very painful/challenging.”
9. Refrain from judgment or unsolicited advice
When we turn to someone for support, we often seek out a sounding board rather than advice.
Being supportive sometimes means listening to someone vent about their horrible day at work or process their feelings about the fight they just had with their partner without trying to solve the problem for them. If you’re unsure whether or not they need advice, there’s no harm in asking them.
Not everyone with a problem needs you to solve it. Sometimes all a person needs is to feel like they’ve been heard. Listening without judging can be more effective than injecting your opinions or trying to solve a problem that doesn’t have an easy answer.Zero Dean
It can be difficult for some people to share their feelings in the first place. The last thing they need to hear is your judgment.
If you have strong opinions on the matter, do your best to keep to it yourself unless the person you want to support specifically requests your input. Judging the person confiding in you is a sure way to discourage them from ever trusting you again.
Some hurtful statements to avoid are:
- “So many other people have it worse than you.”
- “I would never do anything like that.”
- “What were you thinking?”
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It’s not always easy to be supportive, but good relationships are built on support. This does not mean unconditional support: it’s okay to call out your friends when necessary and setting clear boundaries is especially important. But it’s also important to approach supporting your loved ones with an open mind and no judgment and avoid simply sending “thoughts and prayers” – it’s actions that matter, both in good and tough times.
What do you think? Are you finding it difficult to be supportive of others? Do you want to share your own experience of being supported by your friends? I’d love to hear about it in the comments below!