What Most People Get Wrong When They Try to Be a Supportive Listener

an outstretched hand about to catching a falling silver onyx heart pendant
Image by A. Pagliaricci / CC BY

“And that’s why it’s been a really rough time lately,” my friend says, clearly looking pained.

I nod. Her story reminds me of a similar time in my own life. A time that I struggled. And I almost launch into that exact story, but I manage to stop myself just before I do.

“It sounds it,” I say instead. Because I want to be supportive, and part of that is making sure that I’m not constantly bringing the conversational focus and the attention back onto me. My life. My concerns. “I remember your going through something similar last year. You know, at the time of the breakup.”

She smiles and nods. “Yes, this is very much like that.” She talks for a bit about that, the two situations. The similarities, the differences. There are some of both, but there do seem to be more of the former than the latter. Everything lines up really well.

I do my best to be supportive. To emotionally validate her. A few minutes later, she suddenly says, “This is a lot like what you went through with Rob, isn’t it?”

I nod. Then and only then do I draw the connections between our two stories.

And at the end of our time together, I leave feeling like I’ve done the supportive friend bit right. For once.

A Hasty “Me Too” Can Be Well Intentioned But Can Make It Seem Like You’re Trying to Make It All About You

I’ll be perfectly honest: It’s very rare that I get this kind of conversation right. When a friend is struggling with something, my first instinct is to relate to their situation, find experiences in my own life that are similar, and convey that to them.

And if you’re anything like me, you struggle with this, too. Because you want to let your friend know that they’re not alone. That others have gone through this, too.

It can be well intentioned. But it’s a risky move. I have friends who it works with pretty well, but others it grates on. And even the friends who are used to this kind of “relatable, here’s my story” contribution will have times when that sort of response is the exact opposite of what they want from you. Times when the kind of sharing you mean to be supportive will instead come off as though you’re trying to shift the focus back onto you.

Where your attempts to say, “I have struggled with this, too. You are not alone. You are not a bad person for going through this. And it can even turn around eventually, because it turned around for me,” will fall completely flat.

Have you ever spoken with someone who didn’t really ever seem to hear what you had to say — let alone actually be interested in it?

Who seemed like while you were speaking they were just standing there, trying to think of what they wanted to say next?

I sure have. For me, it started early. My mother is a notoriously bad listener, takes very little interest in other people’s thoughts. And her tendency to spend the entire time the other person is speaking formulating her next response — rather than listening to what anyone is saying to her — has resulted in some zany non sequiturs.

Occasionally, it’s been pretty funny. And something my other family members joke about.

But many other times, it’s hurtful. It makes it feel like she doesn’t really care about what’s going on in anybody else’s lives.

And it sure as hell doesn’t feel supportive.

It’s Especially Important to Respond Supportively When a Friend Is Struggling

I’ve worked very hard to not act like this. To not turn into my mother in terms of my listening style. And overall, I’ve done pretty well. I typically hear what the other person is saying. And while I used to severely struggle with interrupting others who were talking (anticipating, rightly or wrongly, what they were going to say next and reacting before they got there), I’m getting better at that (though still not perfect).

And whenever possible, I try to indicate to the person I’m talking to that I actually heard what they said. Sometimes this is through admittedly textbook active listening techniques — where you restate what they said to indicate that you hear them. But other times, I’m a great deal more informal, especially when talking with friends instead of clients. There will be many times when I’m talking to friends where I won’t paraphrase or restate what they just said but add onto it in a way that would only be possible if I were actually attending to the conversation.

Most of the time, this lack of formality works out okay, in everyday back and forth low-stakes banter.

But I’m finding there are times when I really ought to be more careful. When a friend is grieving a death of a loved one, working through a breakup, combating depression, etc.  Times when my friends need my best top shelf level of support, not my “good enough” ad hoc sloppiness.

Derber’s Conversational Narcissism and Shifting Vs. Support Responses

Sociologist Charles Derber writes about the proliferation of conversational narcissism in his book “The Pursuit of Attention.”

Most self-centered conversationalists aren’t quite as blatantly non sequitur or obvious about it as my mother, Derber contends. They at least make a show of being engaged in the conversation by saying something relevant to the general topic the person they’re conversing with has broached. However, they tend to whenever possible attempt to move the focus back on themselves and their own concerns.

As Derber writes:

To explore the narcissistic practices that occur most often, we must distinguish between two kinds of attention-response: the shift-response and the support-response. The shift- and support-responses are alternative ways one can react to others’ conversational initiatives. The differences between the two can be seen in the following examples:

JOHN: I’m feeling really starved.
MARY: Oh, I just ate. (shift-response)

JOHN: I’m feeling really starved.
MARY: When was the last time you ate? (support-response)

JOHN: God, I’m feeling so angry at Bob.
MARY: Yeah, I’ve been feeling the same way toward him. (shift-response)

JOHN: God, I’m feeling so angry at Bob.
MARY: Why, what’s been going on between the two of you? (support-response)

JOHN: My mother would pack me melted cheese sandwiches every day.
MARY: My mom never made me a lunch I could stand to eat. (shift-response)

JOHN: My mother would pack me melted cheese sandwiches every day.
MARY: Hey, your mother was all right. (support-response)

JOHN: I saw Jane today on the street.
MARY: I haven’t seen her in a week. (shift-response)

JOHN: I saw Jane today on the street.
MARY: Oh, how’s she doing? (support-response)

JOHN: I just love Brahms.
MARY: Chopin’s my favorite. (shift-response)

JOHN: I just love Brahms.
MARY: Which is your favorite piece? (support-response)

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Ever since I discovered this framework, I’ve made a conscious effort to do better. To try to shift less and support more. Do I do it perfectly? No, I’m pretty sure I don’t. I still find myself falling into old patterns. Behaving informally. And most of the time getting away with it, especially with old friends in good times.

But I’ve found it more important to do this well when I’m interacting with folks I don’t know well at all (or who I’m working with in a professional capacity) and when old friends are struggling with something heavy.

Those are the times where taking shortcuts can really do the most relational damage.

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Further Reading:

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This post is part of an ongoing Poly Land feature called Psyched for the Weekend, in which I geek out with brief takes about some of my favorite psychological studies and concepts. For the entire series, please see this link.

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Books by Page Turner:

A Geek’s Guide to Unicorn Ranching

Poly Land: My Brutally Honest Adventures in Polyamory 

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