An incredibly common question that I am asked by clients does not relate to their personal challenges. Instead many clients want to know how to better support someone they care for who is experiencing a challenging time.
Whether this is for a loved one, friend, colleague or acquaintance, people often want to provide those in need with effective support and are often at a loss about how to do this effectively. In my experience as a psychologist part of this is caused by people focusing on getting the words right, and then they get stuck on what the right words are. This can lead to many people avoiding the person in need, not because they don’t want to support them, but because they are fearful they will make things worse.
The steps that I have found to be most successful in assisting my clients, have been adapted from Psychological First Aid techniques to offer effective support for people after a disaster. These involve the framework of Look/Listen/Link:
Look: How to recognise when support may be needed and how to approach people in a way that maximises a positive outcome.
I find that this is a step that is traditionally mis-managed, as standard approaches to people can often stigmatise, create judgement, labelling and turn us into mini-Psychologists, with often negative effects. If an initial approach has a person feeling judged, labelled as crazy or fragile, or pathologised, they are less likely to then engage in support.
It is often good to make clear to the person that you are thinking of them, would like to offer support but want to make sure that you can support them in the way they want. They can then be part of this interaction, by letting you know what they want. Commonly, they may want you to act like normal (a lot of my clients with cancer often feel a loss of self because people start to treat them differently when they want to be treated in the same way as others).
Listen: Most of us believe that we are excellent communicators, however it is surprising how few of us are good listeners. I feel that effective listening is the most important step in the support process, as this will foster engagement, understanding, empathy and support for an individual.
Again, you can ask the person if they want to talk about the situation and if so, listen, paraphrase, empathise and do not try to solve the problem for them or give advice. Also do not feel that everyone needs to talk, because forcing someone to discuss the situation can often be more about our need, rather than theirs.
Link: Another pitfall that I often find is that if my clients have achieved the first two steps, they often take on the ownership of the situation and can quickly find themselves out of their depth, or acting as a quasi-psychologist. By supporting someone to make their own decisions to overcome a difficult situation and linking them with appropriate support, the individual is empowered.
I personally feel that a person’s belief in their ability to recover and work through an issue is the best predictor of their success.
Follow Up: A final area that we sometimes miss is to follow up with someone to whom we have offered support.
Many complaints that I hear from clients regarding their Managers is that while they may have felt supported at a time when they disclosed a personal challenge, the Manager never asked them later how they were travelling. Often I find that the Manager got stuck on not wanting to interfere or say something wrong, and while well intentioned this can appear to be dismissive or uncaring.
The trick to following up is the re-engage and repeat the above steps, as many times as the person seems to want, not to re-invent the wheel.
Let me share an example of my own:
I was contacted by a close friend whose father had suddenly and unexpectedly passed away. After the funeral, I saw my friend sitting on his by himself on a bench in the cemetery and wanted to join him to offer some help.
While walking towards him I was thinking to myself, “Ok Peter, think of what you can say to make him feel better”. When I sat down I went to speak and drew a blank. Nothing came out.
For the next half an hour I sat with him, silent, the whole time repeatedly thinking to myself “How dare you call yourself a Psychologist. You can’t even support your friend!” And “What a lousy friend you are, you should be able to say something to make him feel better”.
I left the funeral feeling horrible about myself and for being a lousy friend.
Two days later he gave me a call. He thanked me for just being with him and not trying to make him feel better or asking a lot of questions. He just wanted some space and to not be alone and he thought I must be a great Psychologist because I got this so right.
I can laugh about how I handled that situation now and whenever I am helping someone to support another in their life, I always think of this experience. We can all at times, over complicate the basics of good support and even we as Psychologists are guilty of forgetting that it is not what we say, but how we support someone that makes the real difference.
If you would like some assistance in supporting others more effectively, please give our office a call.