How to support someone in need
Updated: Jan 28
It can be hard seeing someone you care about struggle with daily life. So how do we best help? In this article, I share a few ways you can provide compassion and support when someone is going through hard times.
We will all face ups and downs during our lives, but sometimes our challenges can catch us off guard. Similarly, we understand that people all around us are working through their own challenges. That is part of the ebb and flow of daily life, and being there for one another – to celebrate the good times and help each other through the harder times – is what binds us together. Feeling connected in the greater tapestry of life is integral to everyone’s mental wellbeing, and it provides the inherent structure of a support system.
At different times, you’ll come across people who are struggling. Maybe it’s a personal issue, or perhaps it's a professional one, either way – you’ll be presented with the opportunity to help. While you’re not going to have all the answers, there are some strategies you can employ when helping someone in a time of need.
Let them know you’re there
Assure the person that there’s a support structure around them – people who care and people who can help. Praise them for reaching out and encourage them to keep making efforts to do so, no matter how small. If someone is asking for help, then open that space.
If you do offer to support someone – either directly by saying ‘I’m here for you’ or indirectly by implying it – then it’s vital to follow through and honour that commitment. That does not mean you have to take on the whole burden though. Your job is to show that help is available, whether that’s directly through you or via professional support.
Actively listen to them
Give them the space to talk about the issue at hand. That means staying calm and truly listening, even if you hear some things that are confronting or that you don’t necessarily like. Try not to be desperate, or to seek out the juicy details or the information you might want to know. Just listen.
Most of the time, people put on a brave face so it can be a bit of a shock when somebody starts to really open up. The best thing you can do is to stay neutral. Try your best to be patient and allow the person to share at their own pace without interrupting. Patience also means trying not to jump right into problem-solving mode. Sometimes listening is all that someone wants. Remember, you don’t have to have all the answers – sometimes you can be the conduit to them.
Don’t make assumptions
It’s tempting to frame things through the experiences of your own life, but you’re not going to have all the details and full context. In some situations, assumptions can be damaging. One thing that everyone can do, though, is to normalise emotions. We all have complicated feelings, and it’s important not to make someone feel like they're weak or unreasonable for sharing theirs. It’s an incredibly positive, empathetic gesture to say, ‘We all go through difficult periods, and there are plenty of people who have been in this situation who felt just like you do now, but they did come out the other side of it.’
Even if the situation is abnormal, just acknowledging the fact that it’s okay to feel overwhelmed is a positive step. Validating emotions and offering acknowledgment in a safe zone can be immensely beneficial. You’re not passing a value judgement, you’re simply acknowledging that these emotions are genuine.
Consider what you can (reasonably) do
At some point, you’re going to face a decision. Are you going to step into the space of being a direct helper? Or, is the support that you need to offer actually about enlisting others to help find the best solution? If you do get involved, is it going to be something that’s sustained and ongoing – or just in the immediate future?
You’ll need to be honest with yourself and the person in need. Are you skilled in the right areas? Are you adequately equipped? Do you have the time to make this kind of commitment or do you already have life overflow yourself? Are you emotionally resilient enough to take this on? Finally, would a professional be a better fit?
Now, the answers to these questions aren’t binary. Even if you feel like you can’t take everything on, there may be some genuinely caring ways you can be supportive. For example, you could offer to do some research on behalf of the person and then provide them with some articles. Or, you could look up a counsellor who specialises in a space that’s relevant to the situation. Depending on how comfortable you feel, you could even offer to attend a GP appointment with the person who needs help.
If it’s a situation that’s arisen at the workplace, you could offer to get the person home or to a safe space where they’re able to get some fresh air. If you feel like it’s appropriate, you could suggest sitting with them and a manager as a neutral party. In a family or work structure there are clear chains of command that need to be respected, so don’t step in if you don’t feel comfortable. You may prefer to explore options that are available within a work or school environment, such as the HR department, employee assistance programs, student services or a counsellor.
Don’t make this the focal point of your relationship
The strength and support we gain through the relationships that we hold is invaluable. Just knowing that we are there for each other really matters. It’s also important to remember that sometimes someone needs to be supported through short-term challenges, and then when it’s over, they want to resume that former healthy connection they had with you. They won’t want recent issues to be the dominant or defining feature of your relationship going forward. They also won’t want to feel like an ongoing burden, either.
Over time relationships naturally change, so it’s important to continue fostering the things that brought you together in the first place – while creating space for growth. Find ways to talk about new happenings, participate in your normal activities and maintain the interests that helped form your original bond. Try to make it easy and comfortable to move forward, because some relationships do come and go, but they can also last a lifetime if you protect and invest in them.
Originally published on www.onelife.aiavitality.com.au on November 20, 2018.
Alisa Camplin is an Olympic Gold Medalist, in-demand Keynote Speaker, Corporate Ambassador, and Human Performance Consultant who delivers results-driven Resilience and Human Performance Training and Development Programs. Connect with Alisa.