A couple discusses an issue in their living room.

What do I say?

This question often nags at us when we want to support the people in our lives. Most of us were never taught how to support others. Our parents and caregivers may have attempted to model it, but for so many, it has been trial and error.

When we’re in the role of listener, we long to say “the right thing.” This desire can make us anxious and interfere with our natural responses or instincts for empathy. Attempting to find “the right words” can also distract us from being present in the conversation, leaving the other feeling unheard or unsupported.

If we keep it top of mind, it’s easy to find daily opportunities to support others. These interactions, which vary in level of intimacy and vulnerability, are available in both distant and close relationships.

Sitting on the bus next to a talkative stranger can prompt us to share our hardships. A kitchen conversation with a co-worker can lead to learning about their ailing mother. Spending time saying goodnight to your child might elicit their sharing disappointments experienced at school.

These special moments, full of potential and opportunity to deepen connection, are often sparked simply by listening and offering supportive responses.

As a psychologist, I often recommend the following tips for supporting the people in our lives:

1. Practice being a good listener and ask questions.

A good listener is a present listener. Although everyone’s mind naturally wanders, if we want to be supportive, we must make a deliberate effort to focus and listen. Good listeners also ask questions that help the other feel heard.

This communicates an interest and openness to the person and encourages them to keep sharing. It also provides an opportunity for the person to clarify, elaborate, or deepen the conversation.

Try asking, “What was that like?” “How are you feeling?” or “What do you think about that?”

2. Determine what type of support is desired.

You can figure this out by asking the person directly or by paying attention to cues in the conversation. People often do not want advice; and if they do, they ask for it directly. A good practice is to allow listening to be your first and primary tool for support.

3. Respond congruently with what is shared and mirror the person’s emotions.

You have likely heard people say, “They met me right where I was.” Congruence is shown by staying with the topic that the person is discussing and reflecting the emotions of the other through your facial expressions, tone of voice, and volume of speech. If someone is smiling, smile back. If someone is tearful, reflect empathy in your face and body language.

When supporting others, it is important to remember that the roles of listener and sharer are not fixed and can interchange throughout the conversation. At multiple points, the listener can become the one who is sharing or disclosing.

However, as a listener, you have a unique opportunity to be supportive and increase your connection with the person you care for. Although you may feel a temptation to shift the conversation to yourself, resisting this urge helps the other to feel heard and ultimately supported.

Your mental health plays an important role in your overall well-being. Find out more about how your mind works, and how to help yourself and your loved ones through emotionally challenging times at ibx.com/knowyourmind.

Tiffany N. Brown, Ph.D.

About Tiffany N. Brown, Ph.D.

Tiffany Brown, PhD, is licensed clinical psychologist and adjunct professor. She established Dr. Tiffany N Brown PLLC in 2019 to provide therapy and mental health consultation services. She is also a staff psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania and the embedded psychologist for Perelman School of Medicine.