Giving emotional support is a way of helping people feel connected and less alone. This is not always easy, and different situations call for different types of support.
Providing emotional support requires a person to listen without judgment and show that they understand by responding empathetically. This may mean that a person has to resist the impulse to try and fix things or talk someone out of how they are feeling.
More than half of people say that they need emotional support to make difficult decisions. For people with mental or physical health conditions, having the right social support can help improve the quality of life, and
Read on to learn what emotional support is, how to give it, and how to ask for it.
Emotional support is showing care and compassion for another person. It can be verbal or nonverbal. It may include actions such as helping a person call a therapist or giving a hug to a crying friend.
Emotional support can help a person cope with their emotions and experiences and show them that they are not alone. This can make a substantial difference to a person’s health and happiness.
The researchers found that 52% of people who felt that they needed more emotional support during the COVID-19 pandemic said that their life stress had increased, compared with the 27% who reported having adequate emotional support.
Emotional support can look different, depending on the situation, the people involved, and cultural or social norms. However, there are some hallmarks of good emotional support that apply in any situation.
Effective emotional support is:
- respectful, treating the person in need with dignity and consideration
- nonjudgmental, which means that a person does not judge the other’s thoughts, feelings, or perspective
- compassionate, providing reassurance and understanding
- unconditional, which means that the person does not need to do anything or react in any specific way to get support
- person-centered, meaning that it focuses on the wants and needs of the person seeking support
Some types of emotional support include:
This technique involves listening attentively to what a person is saying and engaging directly with it. This shows the person that what they say matters.
To actively listen, a person must:
- give the other their undivided attention
- allow them to say what they feel without judgement
- ask questions to clarify or better understand their experiences
- verbally summarize or reflect on what they have said
A few simple questions and responses can help a person feel heard. For example, if a person just found out that they did not get a job, a friend might say:
- “What happened?”
- “How are you feeling about it?”
- “It sounds like it did not go how you wanted it to.”
- “That is really frustrating.”
Empathizing and validating
Empathizing with another’s experiences as much as possible is an important part of emotional support. Validating their feelings goes a step further, letting the person know that how they feel is normal and OK.
For example, if a loved one is grieving, a person might say:
- “It is understandable you feel angry.”
- “It is normal to feel a mixture of things right now.”
- “It see why you feel that way.”
It may be difficult to empathize with emotions that a person has not experienced themselves. In these situations, it is OK to be honest about not having the same experience. Instead, a person can acknowledge someone’s pain by saying:
- “That must be so hard.”
- “I can only imagine how difficult that is.”
- “I am sorry that you are going through this.”
Love, care, and encouragement
Sometimes, a person needs to hear that they are loved. A person experiencing a breakup, for example, might want to hear:
- “I love you no matter what.”
- “I am here for you.”
- “I will listen for as long as you need me to.”
It is important not to immediately jump in with unsolicited advice when a person is opening up. They may just want to talk, to process what they are going through.
In these situations, trying to “fix” the problem for them may make the person feel frustrated or like they are wrong to feel upset about it.
However, if they seem to want advice, try asking questions that help them explore the options for themselves. For example, questions to ask a person who is worried about money could include:
- “What are you most anxious about right now?”
- “What resources do you think would be most helpful?”
- “Can you think of anything that would make this feel more manageable?”
- “Would you like my opinion?”
Offering material support
Material support involves performing tasks or services. As with advice, it is important not to offer this immediately. Instead, give the person a chance to vent their feelings freely.
If a person has a skill or capability that might be useful, they can ask the other person if they would like assistance. For example, they could offer to:
- drive or accompany them to an appointment
- look after their children
- speak up on their behalf
This is one general formula for being emotionally supportive:
- Listen with empathy: Consider how the other person may be feeling, and listen for the specific words that they use to describe it. Remember that people can have different reactions to the same events, so try to understand their perspective.
- Listen without judgment or interruption: Sometimes just being heard makes a person feel supported. Do not tell the other person how they should feel. Do not argue against their way of thinking or diminish the severity of their problems.
- Reflect: Summarize, or “mirror,” what they have said, as this shows understanding. For example, “It must be so frightening that John is back in the hospital. I can hear that you are tired and scared.”
- Offer compassion and reassurance: Depending on the situation, it may be appropriate to remind the person that everyone makes mistakes or that they are loved. Or it may be appropriate to praise their ability to get through difficult times.
- Be honest: Even when a person is unsure how to react to bad news or difficult feelings, it is still possible to be supportive. A person might say, “I want to make it better and provide the right support, but I am not sure what to say. I am still here to listen, though, and I want to continue talking.”
- Ask what they need: This allows the person in need to be in control of the kind of help they get. A person may just want to talk, or they may want advice or material support. Others may want a distraction and to change the topic of conversation. Follow their lead.
Learning how to provide emotional support takes time, and sometimes people have unhelpful responses, even without meaning to. Some things to try to avoid include:
- Telling a person how to feel: Emotions, including strong emotions, are part of the human experience. It can be scary to hear someone talk about how overwhelming theirs are, but this does not make the emotions bad. Avoid telling someone to try to change their mindset or “Think positive,” as this invalidates their feelings.
- Minimizing the problem: People find different things stressful or difficult. Avoid telling someone that their problem is not that bad or that others have it worse. This may make them feel guilty.
- Saying “I know how you feel”: This may be true, but try not to make this assumption before hearing what the person has to say. Claiming to understand before gaining true understanding of the person’s unique perspective may make them feel less understood.
- Rushing the conversation: If there is not enough time to provide emotional support, do not rush through the conversation. This can make the person feel unimportant. Instead, a person might say: “I really want to talk about this, but I have a meeting that I cannot get out of. Can we talk at lunch?”
- Focusing on one’s own needs: People in distress usually do not have the ability to tend to others’ feelings, so talking about how their emotions are affecting others is not helpful. It may only make them feel guilty. Try to focus on their needs during the conversation.
- Showing annoyance: Sometimes people treat distress as a discipline problem or a personality failing. For example, a parent may feel this way about a child. Acting annoyed, telling someone to “Snap out of it,” and similar reactions are likely to make the distress worse.
Asking for support can be a difficult step, but it is an important one. People who need help can try:
- Choosing the right person: Some people are more experienced than others at providing support. This does not necessarily mean that they care more, only that they have more practice. Try to choose a person who has this skill, and avoid those who have been unhelpful in the past.
- Explicitly asking for support: This may be hard, but it can reduce miscommunication and help a person find support faster. Tell the other person what they can do to help. For example: “Do you have time to talk? I need someone to listen.”
- Communicating clearly: If a person has misunderstood or is saying things that are not helpful, gently let them know. For example, “I know you want to help by giving me advice, but I just want to vent right now.”
- Consider all the types of support: Some people find it hard to accept material help, such as favors or financial aid. However, if someone offers this freely and it would make a difference, there is no shame in saying yes. Similarly, if a person is not getting support from friends or family, they may want to call a dedicated helpline or support service.
It is important for the person asking for support and the person giving it to have realistic expectations about what emotional support can and cannot achieve.
Emotional support can provide connection, understanding, and sometimes ideas that may help solve problems. This is not a guarantee, and it is not the supporter’s responsibility to provide solutions.
Instead, the goal of emotional support should be to make the other person feel heard, valued, and cared for. Even if the difficult situation continues, emotional support can help, for example by preventing the person’s distress from escalating.
Emotional support is working if the other person verbalizes that the support has been helpful or seems calmer or more hopeful afterward.
Sometimes, the conversation has to end before this point, and this can be unavoidable. For example, a person may have family or work obligations. This is not necessarily a sign that they do not care. Emotional support can be challenging, and it is important that everyone involved feels that they can set healthy boundaries.
If a person feels unable to offer support, they should compassionately express this. Try something like, “I love you, and want to support you, but I feel overwhelmed right now. Let’s find another way to get support.”
If help from friends and family does not feel like enough or is making things worse, there are other options. People can get support from a therapist, counselor, or support worker.
If you know someone at immediate risk of self-harm, suicide, or hurting another person:
- Ask the tough question: “Are you considering suicide?”
- Listen to the person without judgment.
- Call 911 or the local emergency number, or text TALK to 741741 to communicate with a trained crisis counselor.
- Stay with the person until professional help arrives.
- Try to remove any weapons, medications, or other potentially harmful objects.
If you or someone you know is having thoughts of suicide, a prevention hotline can help. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is available 24 hours per day at 800-273-8255. During a crisis, people who are hard of hearing can use their preferred relay service or dial 711 then 800-273-8255.
Giving emotional support is a way to show care and compassion. It cannot replace therapy or medical treatment, but it makes a significant difference to well-being.
Active listening, emotional validation, and offering reassurance are all examples of emotional support, but a person should tailor their approach to each individual and setting.
People who want to be emotionally supportive need to consider what they know about the person seeking support, including their needs and feelings.