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  • Caleb Birkhoff

How to Be a Great Support System for Someone in Need

Helping someone in need is one of the kindest things you can do for your loved ones, friends, and colleagues. When someone close to you is going through a tough time, whether it's a rough patch in life, a broken heart, or an illness, they need your support more than anything else. They need someone who can understand their situation and be there to listen, offer words of encouragement, and help them find a way forward. Supporting someone in need requires a thoughtful and empathetic approach. Though it can be very tempting to offer solution, or “inflict help” as it is sometimes referred to, support starts with listening and being present. Here are key strategies to effectively provide support.


1. Listen with an Open Heart


One of the most important ways you can support someone is to listen to them without judgment or criticism. You don't have to fix their problems or offer solutions, in fact most people find that to be dismissive and unhelpful. Sometimes all that's needed is someone to listen, acknowledge their feelings, and offer unconditional support. Give them your undivided attention, look them in the eye, and let them express their emotions without interruption. This can help them feel valued and heard. People do best with difficult or uncomfortable topics when they feel seen, in this initial stage avoid interjecting yourself into their situation.


This is a helpful place to practice active listening. It’s important to be fully present and attentive when they speak. Listen without judgment, interruption, or immediately offering solutions. A tool that you can employ to demonstrate that your understanding is to reflect back to them what you heard with paraphrasing. It is a way for you to summarize, out loud, what you heard them say. Don’t parrot, repeat back verbatim, what they said; it’s just annoying.


Practice empathy. Seek clarification. Listen more than you talk. Avoid making it about you. Put yourself in their shoes and acknowledge their emotions. Express that you understand their perspective, even if you haven't experienced exactly what they're going through. It can be immensely supportive to validate their feelings. Let them know it's okay to feel the way they do. Validation helps people feel heard and accepted. Avoid dismissing or trivializing their emotions.


2. Offer Practical Help


If your friend is going through a tough time, offer practical help to make their daily life easier. You only get to be helpful if you offer was accepted, or you were asked to be helpful. If neither of those things happened, you’re inflicting help. Once you have an agreement for support or help, you can offer to help with household chores, cook a meal, take care of their children, or run errands for them. This can help alleviate some of their stress and allow them to prioritize their emotional healing.


When you are offering help, offer specific help. When we are in a position of needing help, it can be overwhelming to decide what kind of help you can provide. Instead of generic offers like "Let me know if you need anything," suggest specific ways you can assist. For example, "I can cook dinner for you," or "Would you like company for a walk?" This level support, sticking to questions that have “yes” or “no” answers will be most supportive.


It can make a difference, and demonstrate your care/interest, to educate yourself about what they are going thought. If they are dealing with a specific issue or condition, educate yourself about it. Understanding their situation can help you provide more informed and compassionate support. You don’t have to become an expert, it’s probably best if you don’t.


3. Provide Words of Encouragement


Positive words can go a long way when someone is feeling down. Let them know that you believe in them, and that they will get through this tough time. Offer positive affirmations, such as "you are strong," "you are capable," and "you are resilient." These words can be comforting and help them believe in themselves. Stay away from canned and corny things like “it’s going to be okay,” or “everything happens for a reason.” These phrases ultimately don’t mean much and leave people feeling disconnected and dismissed.


4. Be Available and Present


Show your support by being present in their life. Offer to spend time with them, whether it's a coffee catch-up, a walk in the park, or just hanging out at home. Like above, under offering practical help, ask/offer and respect the answer. Your presence can be reassuring and remind them that they are not alone. Make sure you also check in on them regularly, especially if they need extra support.


Be patient with them and yourself! They might not know what comes next or what to do, and neither will you. Being a support does not mean having the answers, it can be so helpful to be present for the process. Recovery or coping processes take time. Be patient and show consistent support over the long term. Check in regularly, and let them know you're there for the duration.


5. Empathize and Respect Boundaries


When supporting someone, try to put yourself in their shoes. Learn to empathize with their situation, and understand what they are going through. It's essential to respect their boundaries and not force them to open up if they're not ready. Allow them to share their feelings at their own pace and offer support when they're comfortable.


Respect their boundaries, the ones that are being communicated or demonstrated to you, not the ones you think they should have. Be mindful of their comfort levels. Some individuals may prefer space, while others may need more direct support. Respect their boundaries and let them guide the level of assistance they want.


You don’t have to be their only support, encourage professional help if needed. If their situation requires professional intervention, gently encourage them to seek help from therapists, counselors, or support groups. Offer to assist in the process, which could include finding suitable resources, attending consultations/appointments, and encouraging continued participation.



Being a great support system for someone in need is all about showing up for them, offering encouragement, and practical help. Remember to listen with an open heart, offer practical assistance, provide words of encouragement, be available and present, and empathize while respecting boundaries. By doing so, you can offer invaluable support to someone during a difficult time. Being there for someone when they need it most is the ultimate act of kindness and can make all the difference in the world. Remember, every individual is unique, so adapt your approach based on their preferences and needs. Genuine care, compassion, and understanding go a long way in providing effective support to someone in need.


I hope that this list helps you feel more confident to support someone close to you, or yourself this holiday season. If you're wanting more, consider therapy in San Francisco. If after reading all of that, you’re still swirling with questions feel free to call me at 415-990-1452 for a free 15-minute phone consultation and to get some questions answered. I would be happy to hear what is happening for you, what you’re looking for and provide some direction to finding the right therapist for you.


If you are seeking help with couples therapy, drugs and alcohol, life transitions, discovering yourself, or therapy for men’s issues, you can read more about how Caleb Birkhoff might be able to help by clicking here!




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