Offering emotional support typically involves asking questions, listening, and then providing validation and the type of support a person needs, whether physical closeness or something else.
Support comes in many forms.
You might offer physical support to someone having trouble standing or walking, or financial support to a loved one in a tight spot.
Other kinds of support are important, too. People in your life like family members, friends, and even close co-workers, can help lift you up emotionally by offering social and emotional support.
People show emotional support for others by offering genuine encouragement, reassurance, and compassion. This might include things like verbal expressions of sympathy or physical gestures of affection.
Emotional support can come from other sources, too — religious or spiritual sources, community activities, or even your pets. Whatever form it takes, this support can improve anyone’s outlook and general wellness.
Some people have a knack for being emotionally supportive, but this skill doesn’t come naturally to everyone.
You can develop these skills, though, with a little practice. Keep reading for 13 tips on providing quality emotional support to anyone in your life.
When you want to provide emotional support to someone you care about, asking a few questions is a great place to start.
“How can I support you?” can sometimes work, but it’s not always the best approach.
While good intentions lie behind questions like these, they sometimes fail to have the impact you desire.
People don’t always know what they want or need, especially in the middle of a difficult situation. So, this question can be so broad it leaves someone unsure how to reply.
Instead, try asking questions tailored to a situation or the person’s state of mind, such as:
- “You seem a little upset today. Would you like to talk about it?”
- “I know your boss was giving you a tough time. How have you been holding up?”
If you know someone has faced some challenges and aren’t sure how to open a conversation, try starting with some general questions, such as, “What’s been happening in your life lately?”
Try to keep your questions open-ended instead of asking questions that can be answered with a “yes” or a “no.” This invites an explanation and helps keep the discussion going.
It’s not enough to simply ask questions. Listening actively, or empathically, is another important part of providing emotional support.
When you really listen to someone, you give them your full attention. Show interest in their words by:
- displaying open body language, like turning your body toward them, relaxing your face, or keeping your arms and legs uncrossed
- avoiding distractions, like playing with your phone or thinking about other things you need to do
- nodding along with their words or making noises of agreement instead of interrupting
- asking for clarification when you don’t understand something
- summarizing what they’ve said to show you have a good grasp of the situation
Using good listening skills shows others you care about what they’re going through. For someone who’s struggling, knowing that someone else has heard their pain can make a big difference.
Think about the last time you went through something difficult. You probably wanted to talk to someone about the problem, but you may not have necessarily wanted them to fix it for you or make it go away.
Maybe you just wanted to vent your frustration or disappointment and get some soothing acknowledgment in return.
Support doesn’t require you to fully understand a problem or provide a solution. Often, it involves nothing more than validation.
When you validate someone, you’re letting them know you see and understand their perspective.
The support people often want most is recognition of their distress. So, when a loved one tells you about the challenges they’re going through, they may not need you to jump in and help. You might offer the best support simply by showing concern and offering a caring presence.
Some validating phrases you can use are:
- “I’m sorry you’re dealing with that situation. It sounds so painful.”
- “That sounds so upsetting. I understand why you’re feeling so stressed right now.”
Nobody likes feeling judged. Someone facing a difficult situation as a result of their actions may have done some self-judgment already.
Regardless, when seeking support, people generally don’t want to hear a critique — even if you offer constructive criticism with the best of intentions.
When offering support, try to keep your opinions on what they should have done or where they went wrong to yourself.
Avoid asking questions they might interpret as blaming or judgmental, such as, “So what made them so mad at you?”
Even if you don’t offer any direct judgment or criticism, tone can convey a lot of emotion, so your voice might share emotions you didn’t intend to say outright.
Take care to keep notes of disapproval out of your voice by focusing on feelings like sympathy and compassion when you speak.
You might think you’re helping someone by telling them how to fix a problem. But, generally speaking, people don’t want advice unless they request it.
Even when you know you have the right solution, don’t offer it unless they specifically ask something like, “What do you think I should do?” or “Do you know of anything that might help?”
If they’ve moved from “venting” to “talking through the problem,” a better approach often involves using reflective questions to help them find solutions on their own.
You might, for example, say something like:
- “Have you been in a situation like this before? What helped then?”
- “Can you think of any specific changes that might help you feel better?”
When you want to support someone, don’t worry too much about whether you’re providing the “right” kind of support.
Two different people typically won’t offer support in exactly the same way. That’s OK, though, since there are plenty of ways to support someone.
Your approach might also vary depending on the person you want to support.
Instead of searching for the perfect thing to say, go for what feels natural and genuine. An authentic expression of concern will likely mean far more to your loved one than a canned response or one devoid of true feeling.
Times of personal difficulty, especially ones involving rejection, can bring people down and make them doubt themselves and their abilities.
If you notice someone you care for seems to be a little low, harder on themselves than usual, or going through some self-doubt, a sincere compliment or two can go a long way toward improving their outlook.
When offering compliments, you’ll want to keep a few things in mind:
- Keep them relevant to the current situation. For example, you might remind a friend who’s upset about a mistake at work about their usual pattern of success.
- Choose compliments that highlight specific strengths over empty compliments that might apply to anyone. Instead of simply saying “You’re so thoughtful,” pinpoint what makes them thoughtful and share your appreciation for that skill.
- Don’t gush. A well-placed compliment can make someone feel great. Overdoing it can make people skeptical of the compliments, or even a little uncomfortable (even when you do really mean them).
When a close friend or romantic partner believes they’ve found an answer to their problem, you might have some doubts about the effectiveness of that solution.
Unless their approach involves some risk or danger, it’s generally best to offer support instead of pointing out the flaws in their plan.
They may not have chosen the approach you would, but that doesn’t mean they’re wrong. Even if you can’t see their solution working out, you can’t know how things will turn out with certainty.
Avoid telling them what you think they should do, since this can sometimes undo any positive feelings from support you’ve already offered.
If they ask what you think, you could offer some gentle guidance that might help their plan succeed. Even if they ask for your honest opinion, avoid responding with harsh or negative criticism or tearing their plan apart.
Physical affection isn’t appropriate in all situations, of course.
Depending on your relationship with the person you want to support, hugs, kisses, and other intimate touches and caresses can often have a powerful impact.
- After a difficult conversation, giving someone a hug can provide physical support that reinforces the emotional support you just offered.
- Holding a loved one’s hand while they go through a painful procedure, receive unpleasant news, or deal with a distressing phone call can help them feel stronger.
- Cuddling with your partner after they’ve had a bad day can wordlessly emphasize your feelings for them and offer healing comfort.
People face all kinds of unpleasant situations in life. Some of these challenges have a much broader or far-reaching impact than others.
It’s not for anyone else to say how upset someone should (or shouldn’t) feel about any given type of distress.
Comparing a loved one’s difficulties with problems faced by other people often happens inadvertently, as an attempt at consolation.
You might intend to cheer them up by saying things like, “It could be a lot worse,” or “At least you still have a job.” This denies their experience and often implies they shouldn’t feel bad in the first place.
No matter how trivial you think someone’s concern is, avoid brushing it off.
Sure, maybe the lecture your best friend received from her boss wouldn’t have bothered you. But you can’t fully understand her experience or emotional response, so it’s not fair to minimize her feelings.
A loved one trying to manage emotional turmoil may have less mental capacity for dealing with their usual responsibilities.
After you’ve listened and validated their feelings, you can also show compassion by helping lighten their burden, if at all possible.
You don’t have to do anything grand or sweeping. In fact, little things can often have more impact, especially when your actions show you truly heard and understood their words.
Try one of these small kindnesses:
- Do one of your partner’s household chores, like dishes or vacuuming.
- Pick up lunch or dinner for a friend having a rough day.
- Bring flowers or a favorite beverage or snack to a sibling going through a nasty breakup.
- Offer to run an errand for a stressed friend or parent.
Some difficult situations have no solution. You can listen to your loved one’s pain and offer your shoulder (physically and emotionally) for support.
But when time is the only means of fixing their problem, you might both feel a little helpless.
You can still offer support, though. Someone facing a tough situation might struggle to focus on other things.
They might want to distract themselves from stress and worry but not know where to begin.
You, on the other hand, probably have enough distance from the problem that you can come up with a few ideas to take their mind off their troubles.
Aim for a fun, low-key activity you can reschedule if they don’t feel up to it. You usually can’t go wrong with something you know they enjoy, like a walk along a favorite nature trail or trip to the dog park.
If you can’t get out, try a craft, household project, or game instead.
Once you’ve helped a loved one explore a difficult situation, don’t just drop the matter completely.
Revisiting the topic in a few days lets them know their troubles matter to you even though you don’t have any active involvement.
A simple, “Hey, I just wanted to see how you were coping after the other day. I know it can take some time to heal from a breakup, so I want you to know I’m here if you feel like talking again.”
They may not want to talk about their distress all the time — that’s totally normal. You don’t need to bring it up every day, but it’s perfectly all right to ask how things are going and let them know you care.
If they’ve asked for advice and you have a potential solution, you can introduce it by saying, “You know, I was thinking about your situation, and I came up with something that might help. Would you be interested in hearing about it?”
Emotional support isn’t tangible. You can’t see it or hold it in your hands and you may not notice its impact right away, especially if you’re struggling.
But it can remind you that others love you, value you, and have your back.
When you offer emotional support to others, you’re telling them they aren’t alone. Over time, this message may have even more of a positive impact on mental health than temporary mood boosters or forms of support.
Crystal Raypole has previously worked as a writer and editor for GoodTherapy. Her fields of interest include Asian languages and literature, Japanese translation, cooking, natural sciences, sex positivity, and mental health. In particular, she’s committed to helping decrease stigma around mental health issues.