5 Nov 2008

Things You Never Thought to Ask about Supportive Listening

Posted by eranmagen

There are quite a few scientists out there who are studying how people support one another, and the conclusions they’re arriving at are not exactly intuitive. In this post I’d like to discuss two of these findings, which are especially relevant to Supportive Listening. Ready? Here we go:

1) Receiving emotional support can be dangerous.

2) Giving emotional support is always helpful… for the person providing the support.

Let’s take these one at a time.

Receiving emotional support can be dangerous

What? Receiving emotional support is harmful? Isn’t the whole point of support to help make things better?

Well, yes, but while trying to offer help and support it’s easy to hurt the person in front of us, especially if they are in a vulnerable place. The main problem culprit appears to be the supporter’s over-eager attempt to solve things for the speaker – to “rescue” the speaker, if you will.

As psychologist Kent Harber and colleagues put it, “By taking charge of too much, supporters may communicate through their very acts of support that copers lack the skills or strengths needed to remedy their own problems” (2005, p. 692). This creates a sense of helplessness in the person who is experiencing the difficulty, and helplessness is a dangerous thing indeed. While the “supporter” may feel good about solving the problem at hand, the “supported” learns that he cannot solve problems on his own, which is likely to (a) make him feel worse, and (b) make him feel even more overwhelmed when the next problem comes around.

Supportive Listening offers a way of providing support without such damaging side effects. In the same study, Brown and colleagues tested the effect of directive and nondirective support on hope, self-efficacy (feeling that I can handle challenges in my life), sadness, and loneliness. By now You can probably guess the outcome: When people reported receiving more directive support, they also reported more sadness and loneliness. Conversely, when people reported receiving more nondirective support, they also reported greater feelings of hope and self-efficacy.

These results are not conclusive, since it’s possible that people received more directive support because they seemed so sad and lonely, and their supporters interpreted the situation as an emergency. Nevertheless, these results make a strong initial case for the dangers of directive support and the benefit of nondirective support.

Giving emotional support is always helpful… for the person providing the support

In a number of studies, psychologists have found that receiving emotional support may have a negative effect on its receivers. The study I described above (Brown and colleagues, 2005) was unusual, in the sense that most studies do not distinguish between directive and nondirective support. It’s probably fair to assume that there is a fair mix of both in the real world, so there is a good deal of directive support, making people feel a little bad about themselves (even while trying to solve their problems). Therefore, it’s not surprising to hear that many studies have found that emotional support has mixed effects on its recipient.

Results are much less mixed with regards to providing emotional support. Two large studies have found that providing emotional support brings clear benefits. Brown and colleagues (2003) studied older couples for a 5-year period, and checked the frequency with which the study participants provided and received social support. The finding? People who provided more emotional support were less likely to be dead by the end of the study, relative to people who provided little emotional support to the spouses.

Did receiving emotional support keep people alive? Not really. People who reported receiving a lot of emotional support were just as likely to die as people who reported receiving little emotional support. These results held even after taking into consideration the physical and mental health of participants at the start of the study. In another study, Gleason and colleagues (2003) studied couples for a period of 4 weeks, and tried to understand how giving and receiving emotional support influences their moods (rather than their likelihood of surviving, brrr).

Their findings were clear: Giving emotional support greatly improved people’s moods, while receiving emotional support (remember that this may have well been directive support that they received) had negative effects on their moods. However, the negative effect of receiving emotional support was counteracted by reciprocating and providing emotional support to the other spouse. This reciprocity resulted in the best mood for everyone.

So where does that leaves us?

Are we to learn that we should always seek to push help on others, so that we may benefit and they may suffer? Or are we to learn never to support others, so that we don’t accidentally support them?

Of course not. It is possible (and helpful) to provide support in a way that is beneficial for the recipient. Remember what Brown and colleagues (2005) have found in their study: Nondirective support is beneficial for the receiver, while directive support is harmful. Learning to provide nondirective support is a critical step in learning to provide real, healthy support. And, in all likelihood, it’s good for the person providing the support, too. Through Supportive Listening, Paul and I are refining tools that enable everyone to provide exactly this kind of gentle, truly helpful, healthy support to the people around them.


  • Brown, S., Nesse, R., Vinokur, A., & Smith, D. (2003) Psychological Science, 14(4), 320-327.
  • Gleason, M., Iida, M., Bolger, N., & Shrout P. (2003). Daily supportive equity in close relationships. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 29(8), 1036-1045.
  • Harber, K., Schneider, J., Everard, K., & Fisher, E. (2005). Directive support, nondirective support, and morale. Journal of Social & Clinical Psychology, 24(5), 691-722.

© 2008 Supportive Listening

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