Is supporting someone something that happens often? Many of us may wish to support someone in distress. But fear that we do not have the skills to do so. Our main fear may be that we could make the problem worse. But as a society we so often underestimate how much is needed to provide support. We can provide a huge amount of emotional support just by being present and listening. Acknowledging what is shared with us and ensuring the person feels heard and their feelings are validated. Of course, this is no replacement for professional support when this is required. But we can still provide the support suggested above. And encourage accessing professional and voluntary sector supports through signposting.
We need more awareness that we do possess many of the skills required in supporting someone; to provide early intervention or low level support to those around us. And that these skills are learnable and teachable. If we wish to improve them it only takes some time and effort. Again, aside from specific therapeutic skills which should be left to the professionals. And we have no place practising as this can be dangerous. But overall, there is much we can do. And it’s often our lack of knowledge or confidence around mental health and illness which holds us back. Put simply, our fear of putting our foot in it, stops us putting our best foot forward.
Humans have great instincts for the most part. And this includes understanding what people may need when they are in pain or distress. Regardless of whether or not they have a diagnosis. The specific support for someone with a mental illness will be the same when it comes to what we provide. Further interventions should always be done by a healthcare professional. I believe we have a sense for how to react and offer comfort. Because we have all experienced distress or pain at times in our lives. And whilst all of us have different experiences, and will require different needs to be fulfilled. There are some rules of thumb which work across the board for most of us. We just need to trust our gut more.
So, what people usually want when they ask about supporting someone is that extra reassurance or confirmation that they’re doing the right thing. That they can trust their instincts. And that’s okay. For one, it’s incredibly human. And two, when it comes to helping others emotionally we are aware that there is some element of risk. Because, even though most of us have a good sense for these things, there is some element of risk with all things. And we’d like to minimize that. So, feel free to check in with others about your gut. Feel free to follow it. And invest time in growing your skills and practising them.
Connection, Connection, Connection
When we talk about supporting someone in distress or at a difficult time. Whether the issue is rooted in a physical, mental, emotional, spiritual or familial problem. What we’re really talking about is being a human being. It’s about one person connecting to another. And how do we do this? Simply by listening. It’s a skill many of us feel we possess, but it can get rusty. We may lapse into a more passive form of listening. I often think of this as hearing. The information flows through us. But when we really listen; we absorb. We’re with that other person in the moment when they share.
And so, we need to be aware of some of the pitfalls of listening. Because it’s so easy to become distracted. Whether that’s by something we need to do. Or if something they share or say resonates with us. This quote exemplifies a big problem perfectly:
“The biggest communication problem is we do not listen to understand. We listen to reply”Stephen Covey
When we hear something we wish to reply to. Our thoughts become distracted and it’s easy to get caught up in our own thinking. As soon as this happens, we’ve stopped listening. We miss what has just been said. And that connection we have built with the person moves back a pace. Truly listening to someone means putting our own thoughts and feelings aside. Not permanently, but enough to really connect with the person talking. To be alongside them and respect their thoughts and feelings by giving them our full attention. When we do this, we are in the best position to help. We’ve heard the whole, rather than the half.
To Advise or Not?
When someone comes to us with a problem or we want to be supportive we seem to assume that this means advice. For some of us we may panic about what advice we should give. Good communication and support doesn’t require this. We need to take the pressure off. It’s not our job to have all the answers or to tell someone what they should do. Often the advice we pressure ourselves to give is unsolicited or unwanted.
Supporting someone means not subverting the hierarchy. Don’t make their problem about you. They’ve come to you for support. They need time to be truly heard. Don’t take this away from them. If you’ve got experience ask them if they’d like to know what helped you. But ask them and make it an offer. It can be as simple as saying: “I went through something similar, xxx helped me. Is that something you’re interested in trying?”.
What if they ask you for help or advice? Think through this together. Again you don’t need to have the answers. If you’ve had relevant experience then see above. If you’ve got an idea make it a suggestion. “I’ve heard that this might help. What are your thoughts?”. Any solution needs to be something they feel good about. They need to be invested in the next steps. Moreover, giving someone the answers isn’t empowering and in frequent cases creates a culture of helplessness. Come to an idea of what to do next together. A great starting point is to ask if this has happened before and if so, what helped. Why reinvent the wheel when they may already have ideas?
So what are the takeaways here? Listen. Really listen. Be empathetic. Don’t make the situation about yourself. Just being there can be the most powerful thing you can do.
For more thoughts on how to listen and be supportive click here!
What are your thoughts about supporting someone in distress? Do you agree with the thoughts above? What are your top tips? As always, let us know in the comments below!