Part of the counseling practice involves providing support — support to students, support to parents, support to colleagues, support to administration. Often this comes in the form of professional support. Sometimes this comes in the form of emotional support. No matter the form, being supportive is a skill. It is a skill that needs thought, reflection, and action. It is also a skill that needs practiced and developed. Too often someone might believe they are being supportive and yet, their actions –however well intended — can be causing more harm than doing good.
As a practitioner, I have spent a lot of time thinking about and reflecting on support. I have come up with my own framework of support that is applicable to staff, students, friends, family, alike. In my framework, there are five points to always consider so as to be effective and intentional with support.
1. Support looks different for every individual. How I would define support is different from how my partner would define support is different from how my co-worker would define support. Every individual, in a time of need, has unique and particular ways that he/she would like to receive support. Each individual also has distinct, personal criteria that would be perceived as unsupportive. It is not enough to assume that my definition of support is the same criteria that anyone else would use to define support. Support is usually such a mashup of different standards that it is impossible to guess the criterion someone might place in the “when I feel supported” category. For some, support means a kind, comforting word. For some it might be being physically present with another person. For some, it might mean being left alone. For some it might mean springing into action and distracting the individual from whatever is on his/her mind. The list of possibilities is endless. Therefore, what I always tell people, “The best thing you do to support someone is ask them ‘What does support mean to you?’” This is the first step in creating a genuine and meaningful supportive relationship. Have the person voice what support looks like, feels like, and sounds like — in his or her perspective. That way you (as the supporter) have a clear understanding of what the friend, co-worker, student, etc. is looking for. With a clear definition in mind, you have a clear starting point or jumping off place to ensure genuine support can provided.
2. Unless you know how the individual defines support, you are most likely setting up a situation of disappointment and failed expectations. The biggest mistake is jumping in to provide support without first having a clear working-definition of what support looks like to the individual who needs it. A co-worker is at a loss with her classroom and the behaviors of her students. She comes in saying “I don’t know what to do.” The counselor jumps in by coming into her class, creating behavior plans for specific students, reestablishing routines, doing guidance on pro-social behaviors — and the teacher feels worse than when she went in “asking” for support. Why? Because the counselor did what she thought was supportive. The teacher just felt challenged, undermined, and like her professionalism was being called into question. If the counselor had simply asked (prior to jumping into action) “What can I do to support you? What does support look like to you?” then the counselor would have been able to see the teacher just wanted someone to listen to her and validate her feelings. She did not need more than a quiet ear. In other words, we can spring into action based on our definition of support. We can walk away feeling proud of ourselves for being so supportive. The other party involved, though, might feel like we did nothing, that there was no follow through, or that we minimized his/her issue. The individual receiving support may feel like his/her expectations were not met and the person providing the support might never understand what they did wrong (which in this case was offer support based on his/her interpretation, not the person needed supporting). It’s a lose-lose situation for both parties involved. Start with a clear understanding of support and eliminate the confusion and disappointment that can ensue when neither party involved was aware of the others expectations from the start.
3. Support does not mean solving the problem or having the answer. A lot of people do not offer support because they do not feel like they know “what to do.” You don’t need to know what to do! Support means being present as an individual, friend, student, family member, works towards resolution, closure, or clarity. People often think that to be supportive means making the issue go away. This is simply not the case. Rather, be there, listen, validate, question, challenge the person asking for support. Let them bounce ideas off of you. Don’t feel responsible for having to make everything better. Just focus on being supportive in the way that he/she expressed would make him/her feel supported.
4. There can be too much support. There is a fine line between being supportive and being suffocating. If you feel that someone needs support — ASK. Don’t assume you can be of assistance and then find out that you are bothering, annoying, and adding additional stress to their life. Maybe you are not the person they will turn to. Maybe at this time they want to muddle through the mess on their own. Do not overdo the support or feel like you have to be involved in the support. It all comes back to that word “ask.”
5. Support is ongoing — not a one time event. If you step up to offer someone support, remember that you are making a commitment to him/her for an unspecified amount of time. Do not make the offer and commitment to support someone if you do not have the time, resources, energy, or capacity to see the process through to fruition. That is unfair to everyone and in that situation, no one walks away feeling good.
These are my go to points when people inquire into support. What are some things you consider when offering support to someone? What are some barriers to offering support? What are some tools you use to create meaningful supportive interactions?