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Most People Do It Wrong: 7 Steps to Actually Being Supportive

Imagine this scenario: It's Friday night and you have big plans. You're getting ready at home, when your friend calls to say that she just broke up with her boyfriend and she's on her way over. When your friend arrives at your house, you can tell that she has been crying a lot. You say, "Tell me what happened." Your friend begins to sob while she tells you all about the breakup. She says that last week she found out that her boyfriend of 2 years had a one-night stand with a stranger and that she broke up with him during an argument tonight. How do you comfort your devastated friend?

Before I went to graduate school, my answer to that question would be something like, "I can't believe this happened to you! What a #%$@ jerk! I know it sucks now, but you're so much better than him. You can get through this. He is not worth your tears." After reading some social support research, however, I quickly learned that this is a horrible way to comfort someone. Unfortunately, I gave advice like this to many people before I learned how to actually be supportive.

As explained in a considerably large body of research, one of the best ways to be supportive is to make your messages person-centered. Person-centeredness refers to the extent to which messages "explicitly acknowledge, elaborate, legitimize, and contextualize the feelings and perspective of a distressed other" (Burleson, 1994). Individuals who are providing support to another person should try to make their messages high in person-centeredness. Below are some steps to creating person-centered support (Burleson, 2003):

1. Motivate the distressed person to tell and retell his or her story.
2. Ask questions about the problem so that the distressed person can elaborate.
3. Be actively engaged in the conversation. Use vocal verifiers like "uh-hu" and "yeah." Also, maintain eye contact, smile, and nod your head to show understanding.
4. Encourage the expression of thoughts and feelings that they experienced during and after the situation being described.
5. Legitimize the distressed person's thoughts and feelings-- "It's okay to cry." "It's totally normal to feel the way you do." "It's okay to be angry, sad, etc."
6. Reinforce their feelings and emotions-- "I totally understand why you would feel that way."
7. Let them know that you understand why they feel that way-- "I would feel the same way if this happened to me."

There are also many things that you should AVOID when providing support.
1. DO NOT discuss your own experiences-- "I understand. I felt this way when this happened to me last year."
2. DO NOT evaluate the other person, his or her feelings, or the other people involved in the situation--"You're
so much better than him."
3. DO NOT ignore the person's feelings by trying to help them look at the bright side-- "Well, at least you have great friends!"
4. DO NOT tell the person what they should do or how they should feel-- "Quit crying. He's not worth your tears."
5. DO NOT distract the person's attention from their feelings-- "Let's forget about this and go out for a beer."

So, anytime that anyone you love is feeling sad, lonely, or depressed, make sure that you listen to their story, avoid giving advice, encourage them to elaborate, validate their feelings, and whatever you do, don't call their boyfriend a @!#$% jerk!

  • Burleson, B. R. (1994). Comforting messages: Features, functions, and outcomes. In J. A. Daly & J. M. Wiemann (Eds.), Strategic interpersonal communication (pp. 135-161). Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
  • Burleson, B. R. (2003). Emotional support skill. In J. O. Greene & B. R. Burleson (Eds.),Handbook of communication and social interaction skills (pp. 551-594). Mahwah, N: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

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