Undeniably, support is hard to give. However, it’s an incredibly important part of our relationships with others. Stable and supportive relationships are desirable: they can buffer impacts of stress, promote better health, and foster personal growth. But, we’ve probably all experienced (and provided), bad support before. Support is not always perceived as positive, so it’s important to know how we can most effectively provide meaningful support to others.
People are most happy when their support provider’s response to their need for support matched their own behaviour. For example, if you disclosed to your friend that you were going through a rough time and are visibly distressed, and your friend responded by giving you a hug and told you that they’re always here for you, that would be a matching behaviour and response.
People are less happy when the response they receive does not match what they wanted, like if instead, your friend responded to you with a ton of information telling you exactly what you should do. However, people are the least happy when support providers respond negatively when any type of support is sought.
Matching response to the behaviour isn’t the only thing to consider. Support visibility is a vital part of providing good support. Support can be visible or invisible, and they have their own benefits and costs.
Visible support is what you would typically regard as support: offering advice, lending someone your shoulder to cry on, or helping someone with their assignment. It can boost closeness and satisfaction of the relationship with the person providing it, and allows the recipient to feel supported.
However, visible support may lead to the recipient feeling like they have an obligation to reciprocate the support, they may feel like a burden, and when there is too much visible support, the recipient may feel incompetent and this could undermine their coping abilities.
For example, if you asked your friend to help you figure out how to do a maths equation or how to write a part of your essay, and your friend just does the whole thing for you, that may leave you feeling more incapable of doing the task than if they had thoroughly explained how to do it or gave you a vague response.
Invisible support includes things like tidying up around the house or cooking for your flatmates without being asked to. It could be giving indirect advice, like saying how someone you know also went through the same thing as the support recipient, and telling the support recipient how that person got through the problem. This shifts the focus away from the recipient, and onto common experiences.
If you have friends who are super independent and don’t like people helping them, this is the type of support that you could use. Invisible support gets around the issues that visible support has, because it is not processed as support. It allows the individual to feel more capable on their own because it seems like they are supporting themselves.
There are still costs to invisible support, namely the risk of not providing enough emotional support when it’s really needed, or coming off as uncaring. When people are visibly distressed, visible support is generally the most valuable.
As always, context is key. Generally, there is no single type of support that will be effective for all situations and people. You should find out exactly how the person seeking support wants to be supported, and sometimes asking the person before you provide support is better than assuming and risking providing the wrong type of support.