In a collectivist culture such as ours, relationships and interconnectedness plays a central role. As a fact, much of our identity stems from our roles as a daughter /son, sister/brother, mother /father and “who we are” often is synonymous to “who we belong to”. But despite the incredible devotion and values that we hold toward maintaining harmony, unifying our family and society, many of us lack the basic skills needed to manage, nurture and strengthen our relationships.
In any relationship, be it the one you have with your partner, boss, a colleague or a family member, providing emotional support is an indispensable skill. Psychological studies and researches have proved to us that a strong emotional support is vital for one’s psychological wellness and physical health. The lack of it has been linked to unfavourable alterations in our brain functions and an increased risk of both psychological and physical illnesses such as substance abuse, cardiovascular diseases, depression and even suicide. Therefore, I believe learning the skill of providing emotional support, as being integral to our emotional intelligence. Having established the need to augment this particular skill, I put forth few points that each one of us has to work on and be mindful of while providing emotional support:
Approach with Empathy – To empathise is to attempt to step into the perceptual world of the other and experience what they are, as if you are the one experiencing them. To cultivate empathy you can ask yourself – “How would I think or feel if this happened to me?”
Dr. Brené Brown, a researcher and TED speaker remarks – “Empathy has no script. There is no right way or wrong way to do it. It’s simply listening, holding space, withholding judgment, emotionally connecting, and communicating that incredibly healing message of ‘You’re not alone.’' The goal of empathy is to make others feel seen, heard and understood while also ensuring a safe environment or space for them to freely express themselves.
This can be conveyed by validating the feelings and experiences of others through statements like “I understand why that would make you upset/angry “, “Yes, the present situation can be difficult to deal with, feeling overwhelmed/ stressed /worried is alright “, “ I think most of us in such a situation will feel this way” while avoiding statements that minimizes the feelings of others such as “That’s not worth being angry about/ It happens with everybody / don’t cry / It is such a small thing “. One mistake we often make is unintentionally inducing shame in others, by comparing their pain or suffering by saying,” XYZ has suffered so much and is still resilient, and you are still at a better place ...” But, remind yourself that each individual is unique and so are their experiences. We are in no place to judge their perception. Another hurtful comment I’ve heard many Indians say is “It must be your karma or God’s way of punishing or disciplining you”. Such statements not only reinforce stereotypes held on mental issues but also invokes the feeling of guilt, further discouraging them from speaking about their feelings and asking for help.
Be an active listener – Empathy can be conveyed only when you actively listen and respond to others in a conversation. Active listening entails “being there” or being in the present with the other. It involves giving your complete attention to what the other is saying, tuning in and reflecting on their verbal and non-verbal behaviour.
This also means that you need to hold back any assumptions, preconceived notions and biases against the person or the conversation. Instead, inquire about their thoughts and feelings through open ended questions like “What are you concerned about / how do you feel about this?” We almost always are eager to offer advice or suggestions but withhold yourself from doing so. Most often than not, people seek to be listened to and to be understood, so only offer advice when asked for it. Another mistake we make in our conversations is excessively engaging in self – disclosure (sharing our own experiences). Though it might be relatable, it might not always be beneficial. Before self disclosure, question – “how will sharing this information benefit the person?’ and share your experience if it offers a different perspective.
Work in collaboration - Every person copes with adversities differently and has different needs as well. What might seem as the most effective solution for us might not be helpful for them. Therefore, ask a person how you can help them. If they seek your advice, you can initiate a conversation where both of you, in collaboration work on an action plan to find practical solutions or explore various coping strategies. Together, you can identify the major obstacle first and then find probable ways to cope with it. For example, if a person is struggling with lack of motivation to exercise/study/work, you can work on building daily short goals for them to achieve and remain accountable to you for the same. It is also essential that you check-in with them regularly about how they are feeling and coping. If they are unable to cope on their own, encourage them to seek professional help or connect them to a therapist/ counsellor yourself.
Lastly , I would like to give a word of caution as well as a reminder - Each one of us are agents of healing and change but , we are not responsible for taking away the negative feelings of others or the decisions and choices they make . Our role is only to nurture and support others when needed. Sometimes , the efforts we take might be overlooked or underappreciated and many a times you would not get the change you desire , so here’s a word of encouragement by Barbara De Angelis, who says ,“Love and kindness are never wasted. They always make a difference. They bless the one who receives them, and they bless you, the giver.”