How to give support

Ben Mann
4 min readOct 9, 2018

There was a time when I thought the only way to support my friends was to give them advice. Then

blew my mind when he hosted a workshop on the subject. I’ll share what I learned there and a bonus that changed how I interact with myself and friends in need.

Types of support

Rahul introduced the five love languages:

  1. receiving gifts
  2. quality time
  3. words of affirmation
  4. acts of service (devotion)
  5. physical touch

Often miscommunication or lack of appreciation comes from someone needing support in one language and receiving it in another. For example, maybe I had a bad day and want a hug, but you’re giving me advice. Or maybe you know I like words of affirmation, but you’re having trouble affirming me in a way that feels authentic to me.

Some people may have trouble identifying their love languages, or maybe it changes on a day to day basis. Maybe you think of yourself as someone who’s intrinsically motivated, so words of affirmation rub you the wrong way: “I don’t need you to tell me I’m smart!” Maybe you dislike materialism, so gift giving and receiving is difficult for you. Maybe your culture eschews physical touch, but it’s what you want and you feel you can’t tell your friends.

My only concern with this taxonomy is where advice fits in. Is it an act of service? Is it quality time? But advice vs just listening vs going into the world and trying to actually solve someone’s problems feel so different. I might add advice as a sixth category and limit quality time to anything less normative than advice giving.

Ask for what you need

  1. Find a partner
  2. Describe something you’re struggling with
  3. Partner asks “How can I support you?”
  4. Ask for the kind of support you want in this moment
  5. Partner gives the requested support

In practice this can be difficult because we don’t always know what kind of support we need. That’s ok! Try a few if it feels like something isn’t working.


  1. Describe something you’re struggling with
  2. Partner starts giving support of the type of their choice
  3. Wait for them to pause, then say for example, “I appreciate your offer to wash my dishes for me, but what I really need right now is a hug.”
  4. Partner gives the requested support

This may feel artificial in the context of the exercise, but it’s really important to exercise the redirection muscle when the stakes are low. Then when we’re emotionally distraught, we’ll be ready to ask for what we need.

Self support

Partner only listens as you describe

  1. What you’re struggling with
  2. Why it’s hard and why it’s okay that you’re struggling
  3. What progress you’ve already made

The fascinating thing about this exercise is that people can be surprisingly mean to themselves in their own internal monologues, but they’d never say those things to someone else. When you speak out loud about yourself in the presence of a good listener, that same mental benevolence and filtering that usually applies to other-directed speech turns on for yourself. I find the same is true when I’m journaling, so I’ll often use the above technique in my own writing when I’m self criticizing.

Listening and reflection

This exercise is from Search Inside Yourself and formed the basis of my active listening experiment.

  1. Talk about anything you want for 5 minutes. Partner listens and can’t say anything.
  2. Partner attempts to summarize and reflect back in ~30 seconds. This can include nonverbal communication such as “You felt horrible about this,” eg., from their tone of voice, facial expression, or body language. Try to avoid repeating anything verbatim.
  3. You correct any miscommunication or inaccuracy from #2.
  4. Repeat steps 2 & 3 until everyone agrees.

I like this exercise because it’s rare that we’re 100% focused on listening to someone rather than searching for moments to insert our own experiences into someone’s narrative or drilling into parts of the story that are irrelevant from the speaker’s standpoint.

You can trigger this exercise in the wild any time! When someone recounts an emotionally charged monologue, you can say, “I want to make sure I understand you. Here’s what I heard.” Or when you’ve dumped something heavy on someone, you can ask, “I want to make sure I said things the way I meant to. Can you summarize what you heard for me?”

I hope you try these exercises! Are there others you’ve found helpful? Therapists are professional supporters. Are you paying attention to their techniques? What do they do?



Ben Mann

Software engineer, tinkerer, aspiring mad scientist