Decades of research on the provision of support to others suggests certain pointers on being most helpful to those in need.

Think about people’s practical versus emotional needs

Most psychologists differentiate between at least two major forms of support that we can offer others: instrumental support versus emotional support. Instrumental support aims to provide tangible aid in order to tackle the cause of the problem – for example, by giving money to someone who is unable to work or carrying out chores to help someone who cannot perform them. In contrast, emotional support aims to salve the psychological distress associated with a problem – for example, by listening and offering sympathy.

In a questionnaire measuring social support created by behavioural scientists Jane Shakespeare-Finch and Patricia Obst at Queensland University of Technology in Australia, giving instrumental support is measured by behaviours such as:

  • helping others when they are too busy to get everything done
  • assisting others with their responsibilities when they are unable to fulfil them
  • helping poorly individuals with practical tasks, and
  • giving financial assistance to those in need.

The same questionnaire measures the provision of emotional support in terms of behaviours such as:

  • listening to others’ problems
  • looking for ways to cheer people up when they feel down
  • allowing others to talk about their fears and worries, and
  • giving others a sense of comfort in their times of need.

The giving of emotional support can be especially important when the cause of an issue cannot be dealt with. For example, seriously ill patients may already have others taking care of their physical needs. People who have lost their jobs may have financial reserves and the skills to find new work. In such situations, though, they may appreciate being able to talk about their feelings with people they feel they can trust.

In trying to support the colleagues and loved ones in your life, consider whether you have any leanings towards the provision of one or other form of support. Also consider that the form of support that another person may need at that moment in time may not be the kind that you feel most comfortable giving.

Be careful not to trade off forms of support

A classic study conducted by psychological investigators suggests that there may be occasions when we offer one form of support only to withdraw another. A team led by Niall Bolger at New York University interviewed 102 breast cancer patients and their significant others to measure the extent to which the significant others were meeting the needs of the patients.

Unfortunately, the study showed that the significant others typically focused on providing instrumental support but ended up withdrawing emotional support. Over the course of six months, the patients’ physical health improved greatly; however, their mental health did not show improvements.

The study suggests that the provision of instrumental support alone is rarely enough. Taking care of someone’s practical needs without regard for their emotional needs may still leave them feeling distressed.

Provide support in ways that are invisible

A later study by Niall Bolger and his colleagues suggests that the most effective social support should be delivered in a subtle fashion without specific reference to it. This time, the researchers looked at support mechanisms in 68 couples in which one person within each couple was preparing to undergo the New York State Bar Examination, a stressful two-day exam that all prospective lawyers must pass before being allowed to practise law in New York State.

Over a 35-day period leading up to and beyond the exam, both the examinees and their partners each completed daily questionnaires. The examinees answered questions about how much support they felt they had received; the partners responded to questions about how much support they had given.

The researchers found a disconnect between what the examinees felt they had received and what their partners said they had given. The examinees experienced improved psychological wellbeing when their partners reported providing higher levels of support. However, the examinees experienced reduced psychological wellbeing when they themselves perceived that they had received higher levels of support.

This seemingly puzzling result suggests that the most beneficial support is that which goes unnoticed by recipients. It is possible that the recipients of support would prefer not to believe that they are weak and in need of assistance; being reminded that they are receiving help may undermine their confidence and harm their sense of self-worth.

The implication: if you wish to support others effectively, make your assistance seem innocuous or invisible. For example, in helping out a colleague, it would be more helpful to say something like ‘Let me do that for you as it won’t take me very long’, rather than ‘Let me help you with that because you’re not very good at it’. Or when consoling stricken individuals, simply strike up a conversation with them rather than pointing out that you are doing so because they seem distressed and in need of your help.

Offer person-centred support

The latest research published earlier this year suggests that the words and phrases we choose can alter the effectiveness of the emotional support that we provide. A team of behavioural scientists led by Xi Tian at Pennsylvania State University looked at the helpfulness of different types of phrases in soothing a distressed individual.

Language that implied a person’s attempt to control the recipient of support was judged least effective. For instance, so-called low person-centred messages could include statements such as ‘Don’t let it bother you’, ‘You shouldn’t let them stress you out like this’ and ‘Don’t think about it’.

The language that was considered the most effective at supporting others tended to express sympathy, care and concern. These high person-centred messages could include statements such as ‘I’m so sorry you are going through this’, ‘Of course it’s understandable that you’re feeling stressed because you care so much’ and ‘I feel bad about how you’re feeling right now’.

Consequently, if you wish to offer effective emotional support, avoid using language that implies that you are telling someone what they should do or feel. Instead, encourage them to talk about their thoughts or feelings and just be sympathetic.

Dr Rob Yeung is an organisational psychologist at leadership consulting firm Talentspace