Tips on being emotionally supportive in conversations
September 7, 2017 6:26 AM   Subscribe

I think I do reasonably well at providing emotional support for small problems and ‘bad’ days. However, I think I am below average at supporting people with bigger problems, or in long lasting tough situations (illness, depression, mid-life crisis type stuff) that you talk about in depth or have conversations about many times.

For bad days, or one off incidents, when I think that people mostly just need to vent, I try to say things such as: “I’m sorry that happened!”, “tell me more”, “what was the worst part?” “how are you feeling now?” , “that person/thing/computer/process is the worst!”.

For big problems though, I run out of supportive things to say, and then switch into problem solving mode. How do you avoid doing this? How do you remain an active listener when supporting someone who is discussing a ongoing or huge problem that you may have already discussed before?
posted by walkinginsunshine to Human Relations (9 answers total) 23 users marked this as a favorite
Don't be afraid of repetition ("I'm so sorry you're going through this." "I wish this wasn't happening to you." "That sounds so rough."). There is no magic best thing to say.

Also, don't be afraid of silence. You want to find the right thing to say, but there isn't anything--if you're being warm and empathetic (hugs, arm pats, sad face, keep working on whatever the two of you are doing--whatever is appropriate for the person involved), then not saying anything is not always cold or rude; sometimes it's the only response.

You're not worse than average. The average is very, very low, because there's nothing to be done. Trying is worth *a lot.* Just don't make it about you. "I wish there was something I could say to make this easier" is okay, but dwelling on your helplessness or your desire to fix things is not. Just show up and be kind.
posted by gideonfrog at 6:42 AM on September 7, 2017 [3 favorites]

I have this tendency, so I'll be looking for the answers here, too. One thing I do when I notice I'm in that mode is I will stop myself immediately and acknowledge I'm doing it and apologize. Very often the response is that it's actually helpful, even if the person isn't responding in the moment, and other times it's received well, and the intent is appreciated. It doesn't solve the problem of doing it to begin with, but it's an effective way to refocus me into listening mode.
posted by Room 641-A at 7:18 AM on September 7, 2017 [1 favorite]

As a chronically depressed person, my favorite things to hear are:

- *hugs* / I hear you / brains are jerks
- Would you like venting, problem-solving, a funny distraction, to be left alone?
- I totally understand if you're feeling crappy and can't make it to Thing We Planned. How about cuddles and Netflix at home instead? / See you tomorrow, maybe?

A really good funny kitten video, or whatever your friend particularly likes, is gold.

It also is really nice to have someone who doesn't mind hearing similar complaints over and over again. That said, if the repeated venting is becoming burdensome for you, don't be afraid to set boundaries, enlist your own support structures, gently redirect the person to other friends, etc. Captain Awkward is my go-to for how to handle this type of situation.
posted by Alioth at 7:23 AM on September 7, 2017 [1 favorite]

N'thing that it is "really nice to have someone who doesn't mind hearing similar complaints over and over again."
posted by Capri at 7:39 AM on September 7, 2017 [2 favorites]

As a reformed proactive fixer, a question I have learned to ask is - is there anything I can do to help?

Often times, people will say that just listening is helpful which means what you are doing is perfect. At that point, I often feel the pressure of having the right reassuring thing to say goes away because I know what I am providing is what they're expecting of me. People talking out their issues very rarely actually want to hear the perfect thing to fix all their issues - that expectation comes from within. Hearing it directly helps quell that expectation.
posted by notorious medium at 8:22 AM on September 7, 2017

Try to be open minded and acknowledge their feelings/problems. Don't judge or say "well I can't do anything about it". It's really nice to feel validated when you're going through something hard, even if it's something you can't fix. Basically be there for your friend, understanding and empathetic. Like other posters said you can ask them what they need.
posted by starlybri at 9:56 AM on September 7, 2017

I find this really, really helpful to remember (taken from this post on the blue):
There’s an epidemic of fixing in many interpersonal relationships. When one person seeks support from another, often the first thing they’re offered is unsolicited advice about what strategy they should use in their career, how they should handle that asshole on the internet, or what they should be doing differently in their activism. It’s all about fixing rather than holding space.

There’s a lot of "should" in many people’s relationships. And it totally sucks the connection right out of them.

We’re taught that our value to others is in giving good advice—we’re not taught empathy. Advice can be valuable, but in my experience, what people most want from their interpersonal relationships is to be seen, to be heard, and to feel connected. Unsolicited advice does not accomplish any of those things and can work toward the contrary.

In my close relationships, we’ve gotten in the habit of asking the question, "Are you looking for empathy or advice?" This question is gold. It gives the person seeking support choice. It lets them feel power when they might otherwise feel disempowered by whatever shit situation is bringing up challenging feels for them.

I’d say about one out of every fifteen times this question is asked, someone wants advice. And it’s usually because they’ve already gotten all the empathy from another source.
I actually asked my therapist about this recently, what she does when her clients come in with situations or problems that she cannot fix or are too big to be fixed. And she said that you would be amazed at how far simply sitting with them and listening will go, because the vast majority of people are not accustomed to or have never had the experience of being with someone who is neither judging nor offering advice but just actively listening.
posted by anderjen at 2:30 PM on September 7, 2017 [6 favorites]

Here is a good video by Brene Brown on empathy.

It's amazing how powerful an act just listening and being present can be. I was recently in a workshop where one of the exercises was for people to listen to someone tell a story without offering solutions or trying to "fix"things. It was clear from people's emotional responses that they weren't used to having that in their own lives.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 5:33 PM on September 7, 2017

This is something I struggle with too, and I've read some very helpful answers already. As a matter of fact, in the past few months, I've been in the position of the one needing help and often venting to my friends about the same issues over and over again (while apologizing for that repeatedly). For what it's worth, what really helped me were two main things:

(1) Really having the feeling that your are being listened to, that your words are heard, and that you're not trying this person's patience, even though this might actually be the case.

(2) Receiving many compliments. This always helps, even if they are about traits that have little or nothing to do with the matter at hand. Only yesterday I noticed that one of my friends is actually a master compliment-dispenser in disguise, and that she made me feel al lot better by doing so.

A tip I try to employ personally, is waiting a few seconds before jumping in with and answer - any answer.
posted by Desertshore at 3:32 AM on September 8, 2017

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