When I was in college, I went with a group of friends into town. A girlfriend and I were getting piercings. My friend had her lip pierced first.
"Talk to me," she said, "it'll distract me from what's going on."
So that's what we did. We told her random stories and that made the process easier for her to endure.
When it was my turn to get my belly button pierced my friends were ready to be supportive. So they started telling me stories. Only I wasn't listening. I was ignoring them and fixating on my belly button.
One of them noticed I was tuning out and checked-in with me.
"Actually," I said "I think it would be more helpful if I was doing the talking and you were listening to me."
So they started to ask me about a research project I was working on. While I told them all about the effects of caffeine on asthma (truly fascinating stuff) my belly button was pierced.
As a group in college, we wanted to be supportive of each other. But we each had our own preferences for what felt like support. We spent much of our first semester together figuring out how to best be there for each other. In the beginning, there were rocky moments were we would take things personally because we lacked a deeper understanding of each others' ways of being and relating.
Now, over twenty years later, we know each other well. Sarah prefers to be left alone when she's working through a challenge. Julia doesn't like to be in stimulating environments but appreciates hanging out together peacefully while sitting on a blanket under an apple tree. And I like it when people randomly check-in with me to see how I'm doing and listen compassionately if I want to talk it out.
As social creatures, we are hardwired for connection and belonging. But that doesn't mean the things which create a sense of connection and belonging are universal. We all have our own unique way of relating and going through the world.
Such subtleties are important for caring professionals and leaders to keep in mind.
It is great to be in a work environment where people genuinely care about each other. In fact, the lack of empathy at work is one of the reasons for the great resignation.
When a co-worker is struggling, offering support can make a world of difference. But if the gesture doesn't fit their needs and style, it can actually have the opposite effect.
A client of mine once felt like she was being undermined by her colleague's attempt at showing support. Knowing she was dealing with some personal challenges, he stepped in and did one of her job responsibilities for her without communicating what he was doing or asking if it would indeed be helpful. She was quite stressed by his actions, in part because it caused a series of other issues for her to sort out. Good intentions can quickly go awry.
In her book Dare to Lead, Brene Brown suggests asking, "What does support from me look like?"
It is such a simple yet powerful question. By asking, "What does support from me look like?" We are inviting the person in need to reflect on and express what help looks, and feels like for them. It's paving a pathway for self-advocacy, something that's so hard for so many of us. And as a result it enables those in the giving role to provide meaningful support.
Sadly, as a society we don't have a habit of asking this question. Instead, us do gooders jump right into do mood. That can include offering unsolicited advice, or making vague offers like, "let me know how I can support you." For someone in the midst of a really difficult time, having the onus put back on you in this way can feel incredibly weighty.
These are things we've all done, I know I have. Even when knowing better, it can be hard to break the habit. Doing something when someone else is suffering or struggling feels better than "doing nothing." And posing a question doesn't feel as fulfilling as baking a casserole.
The thing about supporting someone in need is, they are inherently uncomfortable. So you have to be willing to be uncomfortable with them. Doing something feels more comfortable than doing nothing. Having answers feels more comfortable than not knowing. Yet being supportive often requires standing in the unknown for at least some of the time.
I recently outed myself for being on a cancer journey (the good news is I have a great prognosis but it is complicated). I am so grateful that what followed was an outpouring of encouragement and offers of support. I truly feel so loved. And also overwhelmed.
My recent experience made me aware of the need to invite more conversation around what it means to offer and receive meaningful support. Both for those in the giving and the receiving role.
Right now, for me support looks like receiving random messages of encouragement. A note as simple as, "thinking of you" puts a smile on my face and lifts me up. It reminds me I'm not alone and makes me feel cared for, which fuels my inner battery.
What's more, support doesn't always have to be a grand gesture. I'm not saying I don't need support which requires more significant effort on the part of the giver. Luckily, those acts - such as rides to the doctor's office, are currently being fulfilled by my inner circle. And as things progress the support I need will change too. Just like it would for anyone else in the midst of challenging circumstances.
Whether we are navigating a prolonged issue or struggling to get through a difficult day, we all can benefit from meaningful support. The best way to give and receive it is to create space for reflecting on and discussing what support looks like for you. To check-in, like my friends did in college. And to be open to supporting those you care for in the ways which are meaningful to them.
I'd love to hear - what does support from me look like?