How to Provide Emotional Support to Someone in Crisis: (A Step by Step Guide)

During these strange times of social isolation and uncertainty, it can be helpful to know how to both listen to and hold space for those around you.

Although these are some awesome ways to be a supportive listener, professional support is professional support, and sometimes, no matter how much of a source of support we want to be, there is no replacement for a professional therapist. If you realize the person you are trying to listen to could benefit from speaking to a mental health professional, please refer them to Psychology Today, National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-8255), or call 911 if he or she is a risk to himself or others. But, if you feel confident in your abilities to provide compassion and a good ear, and professional support is not necessarily needed, try following these steps:

Step 1: Listening is a process of helpful communication, not a lecture. Listen first. Don't be in such a hurry to give advice that you miss out on what the person is telling you. Try to understand what is underneath the words, and what the person is feeling. Don't offer feedback without permission and try not to give advice (think about the person you are listening to as the expert on their life, which means that they know what's best for themselves).

Step 2: Try to remain calm with soft body language and a quieter voice. Speak at a slower pace. Taking slow deep breaths while listening will help you to stay present and alert and also relaxed and in tune. If you are unable to be calm, find someone who can. As you listen, try to be accepting and nonjudgmental. Try to help summarize and clarify the situation so that the person you are listening to feels heard and understood. Ask them if you got it right.

Step 3: Listen to the person's responses. They will present a problem or problems that seem to be unsolvable...Sometimes the problem is unsolvable, like the death of a loved one or a natural disaster. Invite them to share in as little or as much detail as they feel comfortable.

Step 4: Be kind and show concern; their problems seem large to them. There's no need for you to try to make the problem smaller than it is. You can simply sit with the person while accepting that the problem is big - but not too big for you to be able to sit with.

Step 5: Break the problem or problems down into parts. As a whole it can be too overwhelming. Try to bring some order into the confusion they are experiencing. Specify and then clarify significant areas of the problem. Ask them if they agree with your clarification.

Step 6: Whenever clarification is needed of events leading to the crisis itself, it may be helpful to ask questions that will enable them to clarify. This may give them a feeling of competence and understanding about their problems.

Step 7: Don't put words into people's mouths. Clarify by restating what they have said by asking leading questions which allow them to clarify further.

Step 8: If you don't understand what they are saying, tell them. If you feel confused, chances are they are too. Say things like: "I don't think I'm understanding what you are saying, and it's important to me," or "I'm really interested in understanding. Could you try walking me through that a bit more?"

Step 9: Follow your intuition. If you feel anxious or scared, it may well be because they have communicated these feelings to you without being able to name them.

Step 10: If someone is having difficulty staying on topic, show support by trying to get at exactly what the problem is right now and how you can help.

Step 11: Know what you don't know. Know how to get the information you need. Help the person find resources and also offer to be present with them while they contact resources.

Step 12: Believe what they are telling you. So often people are not believed. It is especially important that they be able to trust that you will believe and respect them.

Step 13: Don't raise false hopes or give false encouragement. But do focus on your faith in their own strengths and abilities, and your willingness to assist in helping them figure out a solution to what is most likely an extremely difficult and long-term situation.

Step 14: If possible, end the discussion with a plan of action. Help them to formulate the course of action, allowing them to make the choice, but encourage them to accept the realities and responsibilities of that choice.


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