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How to Be Supportive

The power of presence

This week, I’ve asked my friend Eran Magen to share his tip of the week. Be well.

A few months ago, I was in the waiting room at the dentist and saw a two-year-old boy and his father. The child fell off a low chair and came to his father, crying. “It’s no big deal,” said the father. “You’re not hurt.” But the child kept crying.

When people we care about are upset, our instinct is to try to fix things by changing how they feel as soon as possible. In fact, the closer we feel to the person, the more likely we are to give unsolicited advice. It rarely works. When people are upset, they can’t take in new information. They need to calm down first, and to do that, they need to process what they’re experiencing with someone who shows care and respect for them. This is as true for children as it is for adults.

You can provide this wonderful service by doing a simple thing: Listening closely and saying back what you got, without adding any interpretations, advice, or promises. I call this a WIG (which stands for “What I Got”—Angela summarized this approach nicely in this video). They talk, you WIG, they feel heard and feel a little better. They talk some more, you WIG again, and they feel better. At some point, after you WIG, they just say “yeah, you got it” and stop talking. If they seem less upset and more thoughtful, they may be ready to have a regular conversation, where you can make suggestions.

Here’s an example: My two-year-old son, Lian, recently fell off his tricycle after taking a sharp turn. I ran over when I heard the crash and the crying, and hugged him while quickly checking for injuries. He didn’t seem physically hurt, just scared. “Did you fall off your trike?” I asked, and he cried some more. “You were riding, and then you turned here, and the trike slipped, and you fell down BOOM?” I said, miming all this and slapping the ground as I pretended to fall. Lian said, “Turned fell BOOM!” and slapped the ground. I said, “You were going really fast and you turned and then tipped over and fell down BOOM?” and pretended to fall, and by now Lian was laughing. He repeated the story a few times before getting back on his tricycle and continuing to play.

And here’s an example with someone older: Several weeks ago, when we were just starting to get used to the idea of sheltering at home, I was talking by phone with a friend, a scientist in his late 20s. He was upset. “It’s just so strange to stay home all the time,” he said to me. “It’s not like there are bombs going off outside. And at the same time, I’m also really afraid, because we don’t really know what to do against the virus. You know?” I took a breath, digesting what he just shared, and then said it back to him: “It’s like there’s this invisible enemy, the virus. It’s hard to be afraid of something we can’t see. But at the same time, it could be anywhere, and we don’t know how to defend ourselves.” My friend said, “Yeah, exactly! It feels good to be able to articulate this. Thank you, I feel much better.”

Neither my son nor my friend needed me to give advice or to promise that things will be okay. They just needed me to be there, show that I care, and help them understand what they were experiencing.

The next time you’re talking with someone who is upset…

Don’t give advice or promise everything will be okay.

Do listen and WIG, listen and WIG. Show how much care and respect you have for the other person without trying to quickly change their mood. You will be surprised at how much better they will feel—and how much stronger your connection will become—if you simply offer your loving presence.

With acceptance and gratitude,

Eran Magen teaches clinicians, educators, and parents how to form stronger, more supportive relationships in their professional and personal lives. For more information, visit his blog or connect with him on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn.