Tailoring Your Support to the Circumstances
You may pride yourself on your ability to support your family, friends, and colleagues in times of need, or propel them to new heights in times of growth and opportunity. But with so many things to juggle in your own life, you may occasionally find yourself running on “autopilot” when you should be listening, learning, and shaping your support to the situation at hand.
Like a basketball player’s favorite move when driving the lane or your preferred shortcut on your usual biking route, a support routine can work most of the time. But when habitual behaviors fail to adapt to the needs of specific situations, they can cause more trouble than they resolve. The basketball player may commit a charging foul that makes the ESPN highlight reel or you may encounter a traffic jam far worse than if you had taken the long way home. And when our ways of aiding and advising others don’t work, without an alternative plan to fall back on, we often end up leaving our advisees to fend for themselves.
Consider turning off your autopilot and consciously tailor your support to the circumstances at hand. By understanding the range of actions available to you, you can broaden the kind of support you provide. Knowing which options to call on in different situations is the key to being a superstar supporter.
Psychology professors Feeney and Collins (2015) developed a framework that suggests actions you can take to support others. While researchers devote themselves to establishing the evidence for and against each option, those of us trying to help our friends and colleagues can already apply them in our daily lives. Feeney and Collins list eight broad types of supportive actions, examples of which are:
- Promote a positive emotional state.
- Challenge harsh self-evaluations and build self-esteem.
- Encourage the evaluation of a given situation in a way that emphasizes its controllable, temporary nature and focuses on positive outcomes.
- Motivate the rebuilding of what was lost or the stretching to new levels.
- Focus on learning, problem solving, and engagement in life.
- Demonstrate emotional closeness, trust, love, and caring.
- Provide alternative rewards.
- Promote a healthy lifestyle, including diet, exercise, and sleep.
Notice where your usual practices fit into this list. Are you good at motivating people to bounce back from a setback (#4)? Is your forte providing emotional closeness and caring to people who have suffered a trauma (#6)? Wherever your approach, are you adept at changing your tack when it’s not working? By highlighting a range of possible actions, the Feeney and Collins framework can help you consciously select the type of support to provide. You’ll no longer have to spend time doing the same old thing and hoping for a different outcome.
Each item on the list can suggest a different course of action. For example, if your friend is having a tough time finding the right job, you can choose among numerous approaches. You can:
- Take him out for ice cream.
- Remind him that he has a great skill set and challenge any internal dialogue he has that suggests otherwise.
- Frame the problem as a transitory one—soon enough, he will have a job, and all of this turmoil will be behind him.
- Find an online course that would add skills to his resume.
- Work with him to refine his job-hunting skills and develop better approaches to the search.
- Take him out for a heart-to-heart chat over a coffee or beer.
- Engage him in some activity that you know he is good at.
- Invite him to the gym to work out or to your house for a healthy dinner, or both.
If you desire to be a strong supporter of others, to better serve the needs of people you are trying to help – these options can help you do so.
Feeney, B.C., & Collins, N.L. (2015). Thriving through relationships. Current Opinion in Psychology, 1, 22-28.
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