Most people consider themselves pretty good at giving emotional support. When your best friend has a problem with her partner, a colleague, a family member, or her sick cat, you like to think that you know how to be there for her—right? Unfortunately, most people aren’t as good at the whole “being supportive” thing as they might think.
Princeton psychology grad Jeremy Fischbach found out first-hand just how elusive a skill this is when he was going through a hard time; the people he expected to be there for him simply didn’t step up. But the evidence is more than anecdotal: Researchers have studied how bad friendships can counteract the usual healthy benefits (like less stress and a longer life expectancy) that come with having a reliable crew.
Spurred by his unsatisfying personal experience, Fischbach teamed up with some of his fellow classmates to launch Happy, a service that connects people in need of emotional support with listeners who are actually good at giving it. Happy’s listeners—AKA the support givers—go through a pretty intensive training before taking calls. Here, Fischbach shares some of what they are taught.
Keep reading for 3 well-meaning but misguided mistakes many people make when trying to be a good listener.
Mistake 1: Assuming you know how someone feels
You’re scrolling through Instagram and come across a photo in your feed of your work wife looking completely emo. The caption is cryptic, but because you know her, you can tell: That relationship she once felt so secure in has derailed. You should text her, right? Hey, I heard about you and your BF. You must be so bummed! If you need to talk, text me any time! Seems nice, right? But it actually breaks a couple rules when it comes to being a supportive friend.
“One mistake a lot of people make is assuming how someone feels,” Fischbach says. “You might assume someone is sad about their breakup, but they actually might not be! It would actually be better to say, “Hey, I heard you and your boyfriend broke up. How are you feeling?'”
Fischbach also says that when you’re in supportive friend mode, you want to make sure you’re giving your friend your full attention. That means, texting—something you could do while watching Riverdale, making dinner, and scrolling Facebook—isn’t the best way to go. An initial text to reach out can be thoughtful, but if your friend wants to talk about her breakup—or whatever it is that’s bothering her—a phone call or in-person convo is a more sensitive way to go. If she’s trusted you enough to pour her heart out, you owe her your undivided attention.
Mistake 2: Relating their experience to your own life
Chances are, you’ve been on the receiving end of this one. You’re telling your friend about how annoying your boss is and she hits you back with an, “Oh my god, I know just how you feel. This one time…” Even when it can seem helpful to show how you relate, Fischbach says it almost never is. “In these moments, you’re in the role of supporter, so the conversation should really be all about the other person,” he says.
Normally, Fischbach explains, conversations are like a seesaw—they go back and forth. That’s fine when there’s no crisis and no support is needed, but if a friend is coming to you with a problem, Fischbach says the conversation should be more like pushing someone on a swing (to continue with the playground metaphors). “It should be about the person on the swing, with you simply pushing them to open up more,” he says.
Mistake 3: Giving advice
What exactly are you supposed to be doing while you “push the swing,” so to speak, if you’re not relating back to your friend with your own personal stories? According to Fischbach, asking questions. “At Happy, we never train people to give advice. Emotional support is all about listening,” he says.
“A lot of people often have something on their minds that they want to talk about, but they aren’t sure if you want to hear it,” Fischbach says. “Asking questions not only shows someone you care, but also encourages them to let their guard down and open up.”
If a friend is pointedly asking you for advice—Should I quit my job? Should I break up with my partner? Move to San Francisco?— Fischbach says you should still ask questions. “Ultimately, they are going to have more information than you do. Your role is to help them access it. If someone is asking you if she should break up with her boyfriend, you could ask things like, ‘What do you think? What do your instincts tell you? Have you thought about it before?'”
Humans are selfish being by nature (sorry not sorry!), which is why being a supportive friend in these ways is easier said than done. And hey, most of the time, friendship works two ways with both people talking and listening. But in those moments when someone legit needs you, the key is taking a step back and making the moment all about them.