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Helped, heard or held?

When offering support, the importance of respecting individual emotional needs with genuine empathy is paramount. This one question can be the best way to do so.

If you see a colleague struggling, your first instinct may be to reach out and hug them. Not so fast! While that might be your idea of comfort, it could be deeply uncomfortable for them. People are unique, and so are our emotional needs. So, in times of distress, we all have different requirements.

Rather, as suggested by writer Jancee Dunn in her recent New York Times article, ask: “Do you want to be helped, heard or held?”.

The power of asking

When posing Jancee’s question, you’re not making assumptions about someone’s needs nor projecting your own needs onto them. Instead, clinical psychologist Dr Frank Castro explains, “You’re asking permission – and also being very intentional – which is a sign of empathy.” It is here that the power of this question lies.

When people are experiencing an emotionally difficult time, they often don’t want to burden those around them by asking for support, despite needing it. However, “it can be further disempowering for them when we assume that we know what they need,” says counselling psychologist Elretha Bartlett. “It’s crucial to remember that people are complex and what helps you during hardships might be very different from what the next person needs,” she adds.

When we provide the choice – often in a time when people feel they don’t have, or can’t see any, choices – of helped, heard or held, we are giving someone in distress the space and authority to tell us how to best support them.

Three ways to show support.

“I would be careful not to provide too much advice,” cautions Elretha, however, if you have experienced a similar difficulty, you could communicate what helped you. Often though, what someone really needs is practical help with the tasks they may not be able to manage in that moment.
Offer to pick up their children from school, go on a grocery run, temporarily cover some of their workload or send emails to excuse them from upcoming meetings that day.

“The most important role that you can play when someone is upset is to provide the space for them to speak about their feelings,” explains Elretha. Key to providing this space is listening with empathy, ensuring they feel seen and validated. “Having a space where you can connect to your feelings and express them in a healthy way can go a long way in building emotional resilience,” adds Elretha.

This requires active listening, that is, listening without judgement and with your full attention, making eye contact, asking questions but not interrupting.

“Physical comfort can allow people to feel emotionally safe,” remarks Elretha. “This is especially important when people are not yet ready to speak about what’s going on with them. If they are comfortable, hugs are a great way to hold someone in distress. But you could also make them a cup of tea, find a warm blanket or just sit with them.

The next time that you encounter someone who is having a difficult day, ask them which of these three things will provide them the comfort they need. By respecting the needs of others, you will be better equipped to be a good support.

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