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Is your heart open to everyone around you? How can you be supportive of your partner and even strangers?
Mutual support is the foundation of all healthy relationships. By showing you’ll be there for someone through life’s toughest obstacles, you’ve proven that you’re a trusted and supportive ally for anyone.
Here’s how to be supportive of the people you know and strangers.
How to Be a Supportive Romantic Partner
Relationships are built on the understanding that partners will love and support each other through thick and thin. If you want to show your partner you’ll be there for them, you have to make the effort and give them what they need in moments of crisis.
Learn how to be a supportive partner in a relationship by avoiding unsolicited advice and determining your partner’s love language.
Avoid Giving Unsolicited Advice
When your partner has a problem, it’s important to give them what they want, not what you think they want. Sometimes, what they don’t want is unsolicited advice, so it’s important to know the best way to walk them through the issue and not make matters worse. John Gray’s book Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus advises men and women on how to be supportive of their partners in the most suitable way.
The most common complaint among women in relationships is that men don’t listen. Sometimes a man will completely ignore a woman when she speaks. Sometimes he checks out after listening for a short time. In either case, a man’s intention is usually to stop listening and start trying to find a solution that will make the woman feel better. He wants to be Mr. Fix-It.
The most common complaint among men in relationships is that women try to change men’s behavior. Sometimes, a woman will try to help a man by improving the way he does something. Often, she offers these suggestions without being asked. The woman intends to help the man grow. She wants to be his personal Home Improvement Committee.
Unfortunately, because of the natural differences between men and women, Mr. Fix-It and the Home Improvement Committee often lead to conflict in relationships. The best way to avoid these conflicts is for men to learn to listen, and for women to learn to keep their advice to themselves until a better time.
Determine Your Partner’s Love Language
One of the best ways to be supportive of your partner is to show that you know what their love language is. Gary Chapman’s The 5 Love Languages gives ways to communicate love and make your partner feel important in the relationship.
The 5 Love Languages are words of affirmation, quality time, receiving gifts, acts of service, and physical touch.
Determining your partner’s language is not always easy. There are a few clues that might help you understand your partner’s language better so you can support them with their desired method of love.
Think about what your partner desires most from you or the ways they feel most loved.
- Often, what they tend to want the most reflects the way they believe love is best expressed.
- Are they always vying for compliments? Do they like to hug or hold hands more than anything else? Do they wish you would help out more around the house? Do they long for a date night?
Think about what makes them feel hurt or unloved.
- How we feel dejected or rejected can speak to how we want to be loved.
- Does your partner feel crushed if you insult them? Do they feel resentful of the amount of time you spend at work? Does it bother them when you leave without kissing them goodbye? Does a general gift leave them feeling empty?
Think about how they show love to you.
- How we make an effort to show love also speaks to how we feel love is best communicated.
- Do they often do little things to make your day better? Do they find ways to touch you to show they care? Do they tell you how wonderful you are frequently? Do they like to surprise you with small tokens of love?
Consider speaking in one language for a week to see how your partner reacts. The bigger the reaction, the more likely they speak that language. When you finally hit the right language, they’ll be overwhelmed with joy as it shows you’ve been paying attention to the small details in your relationship.
How to Be a Supportive Friend
True friendships are few and far between, and they require consistent effort to stay strong. Learning how to be there when your friend needs you the most cultivates mutual respect.
Check out how to be a supportive friend by practicing generosity and making an effort to stay in touch, according to The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin.
Practice Generosity of Spirit
A long-lasting friendship is something you should value. To keep it going, you need to show support by being generous to your friends.
When you’re generous toward your friends and offer them support, it often gives you just as much happiness as it gives them—when you do good, you feel good. The most simple and accessible way to be more generous toward your friends is to practice your generosity of spirit. There are four significant ways to do this:
- Encourage people. Offering words of encouragement to a friend is a simple, but highly effective way to be generous toward them. Your words might feel small to you, but they might give your friend the confidence they need to take on their ambitions.
- Help make connections. Helping people make connections with others is a natural source of happiness for them, and new connections often offer new sources of support.
- Find your generosity type. Finding your own, enjoyable way to help others is a great way to ensure maximum satisfaction for both parties—not only do you do your friend a meaningful favor, but you also enjoy the task and get to spend time with them.
- Assume positive intent. Be generous in your perceptions of people and work on assuming that they have positive intent, just as you do. If they’re acting negatively, ask yourself: What might be causing them to act like this?
Make an Effort
By making an effort to stay in touch and follow through with plans, your friends will know that you’re somebody they can rely on when times are tough. Even if your friend is in a situation that you don’t know how to handle emotionally (i.e. the death of a loved one or losing a job), showing that you’re there as a shoulder to cry on goes a long way.
Maintaining friendships takes a lot of work, and this work can easily get lost in your busy everyday life. Take the initiative in your friendships to be the one who makes an effort to stay in touch and follow through with plans.
How to Be a Supportive Parent
Parenting is not an easy job and it gets harder when children begin to develop their own ideas and communicate their feelings. Whether you’re a parent to a toddler or a teenager, here’s how to be supportive through all their endeavors.
Implement Authoritative Parenting
In the past, many parenting experts advocated for authoritarian parenting—full of rules and discipline but not much emotional support.
In authoritative parenting, described in Angela Duckworth’s book Grit, parents have high standards and expectations for their children but also offer loving support. It’s neither overly strict nor indulgent. It makes children feel that even when their parents are demanding, they have their best interests in mind.
Authoritative parenting also produces kids who get higher grades, are more self-reliant, and experience less anxiety and depression because they feel loved and encouraged by their parents. This is generally true across ethnicity, social class, and marital status.
Parenting Comes Through Messages
Duckworth notes that parenting styles are communicated through specific messages to children. If you regularly convey the following supportive messages, you’re likely parenting wisely:
- My children can come to me with problems and know I’ll help them.
- I spend time just talking to my child or having fun with them.
- My kids have a right to their own point of view.
- I expect my children to follow the family rules.
- When my children make mistakes, I point out how they could do better, but not in an angry or judgmental way.
In contrast, these kinds of statements indicate you’re not parenting wisely:
- I don’t like listening to my kids’ problems and will ask them to stop talking about them.
- I rarely praise my kids for doing something right.
- I expect my kids to listen to my ideas and not raise objections.
- I make most of my kids’ decisions for them.
- When my kids do something wrong, I either punish them harshly or let them get away with it.
It’s important to be careful with how you communicate your love to your children. Duckworth advises that the best way to learn how to be supportive of your children is to let them freely make their own choices and mistakes but to be there to guide them if things go wrong. This way, children will feel supported unconditionally.
Communicate Unconditional Acceptance
Your child wants to feel accepted by you, no matter the condition. Regardless of how you express love, you need to show your child that you will support them unconditionally. This doesn’t mean that you see everything your child does as perfect—but it does mean that no matter what they do, your highest priority should always be creating an emotionally safe environment. Body language, facial expressions, and gestures are key here.
In Unconditional Parenting, Alfie Kohn points out that parents who are good at communicating unconditional love and acceptance in normal circumstances often fall down in situations of conflict, where it’s more important, not less, to make the child feel emotionally safe.
The Hand-Holding and “Time-In” Techniques
As Kohn notes, body language is crucial when talking to children, especially when discussing behavior you’d like them to change. One aspect of body language is touch, which reduces kids’ cortisol levels and calms anxious children. You could try holding hands with your child during or after difficult conversations, which has been shown to improve communication and positive feelings in conflicts between adults (it hasn’t been tested yet with children).
Instead of time-outs, Montessori-influenced educators recommend “time-ins.” To do a time-in, remove the child from the stressful situation and take him to a quiet place. Comfort him while he expresses his anger or frustration, help him put words to his emotions, and offer some techniques for managing the emotions (for example, taking deep breaths together). Then let the child choose whether or not he goes back into the situation. Janet Lansbury points out that this technique teaches the child that his parents are on his team and that they’re there to help rather than judge.
How to Be a Supportive Ally
Finally, there are ways you can be a supportive ally to those who are part of marginalized groups. These groups could include people of color, the LGBTQ+ community, individuals with disabilities, and more.
Many people who belong to these groups face discrimination and are plagued with offensive stereotypes. There are ways you can be supportive of those who are underrepresented by showing compassion and fighting back against prejudiced policies.
Possibly the easiest way to be supportive of marginalized groups is to show compassion for them, according to Tara Brach in her book Radical Acceptance.
Compassion grows in circles. For example, we might start by finding compassion for our closest friends and family. From there, we could expand our compassion to include people we see but may not know very well: Our friends’ parents, for example, or the people we regularly see at the gym or in classes. In embracing compassion, we might start to recognize how many people around us suffer from the same fears, insecurities, and pain that we do.
Another step is extending your awareness and compassion without limit—caring for everyone who’s suffering anywhere in the world, everyone who feels alone and afraid. This kind of awareness and compassion helps us as well; it reminds us that there’s nothing wrong with us when we feel hurt or scared; it’s simply part of being human.
Compassion and support for others often begins with the question “what do they need?” Asking this question—both to ourselves and others—helps to get us away from our own needs and to act from a place of true compassion. For example, perhaps all someone needs at a given moment is to be heard and understood. Someone who wants to be seen as helpful and competent might listen to that person, but then offer advice where it’s not wanted. Even if her intentions are good, she’s acting based on her needs rather than the other person’s.
However, compassion can go beyond just understanding another person’s needs. Imagining yourself in another person’s shoes is the very heart of compassion—what would it be like to inhabit that person’s mind and body, to exist in his or her circumstances?
Start Supporting Inclusive Policies
Ibram X. Kendi’s book How to Be an Antiracist teaches readers how racism became so deeply ingrained in our culture and how to be an antiracist. But for the sake of being supportive of all marginalized groups, we’ll look at his advice from a general standpoint.
Another way to learn how to be supportive of marginalized groups is to start addressing the root cause of discrimination—policy. You can do so by:
- Acknowledging the true roots of inequality
- Fight discriminatory policies and promote inclusive policies
- Educate others about discriminatory and inclusive policies
Action #1: Acknowledge the True Roots of Inequality
To begin this process, we must first acknowledge that inequality is the result of policy, not people. In other words, don’t blame entire groups like Whites, conservatives, or baby boomers for societal issues. That would be engaging in the same type of bigoted thought that inclusivity fights against.
Action #2: Fight Prejudiced Policies and Promote Inclusive Policies
Second, Kendi says we must acknowledge that prejudice is intersectional: Homophobia, classism, sexism, and all other forms of bigotry are part of the societal structure of oppression. Therefore, to solve inequity, we must create policies that correct all forms of inequity.
To that end, we should look for specific prejudiced policies to fight against and inclusive policies to replace them. For example, if a hospital that serves predominantly Blacks and other minorities receives less funding and assistance than a hospital in a wealthy, predominantly White area, pressure local politicians to fix that imbalance.
As part of this process, determine which individuals or groups have the power to put inclusive policies into place. Get in touch with inclusive lawmakers to promote these policies. Observe the impact those new policies have—if they aren’t having the equalizing effects that you hoped for, then work with those lawmakers to create better ones.
Action #3: Educate Others About Discriminatory and Inclusive Policies
Finally, since policy ultimately reflects public opinion and public will, Kendi recommends doing what you can to inform people about specific discriminatory policies and inclusive replacements for those policies. Keep it simple—many people won’t be open to changing their entire worldviews but will be willing to hear you out about a particular problem and the proposed solution to it.
The above actions aren’t just to make you look like a better person. Understanding how to be supportive is meant to help others by being compassionate, loving, and keeping an open mind. If you’re always there for people, the tough times will be easier.
Are there any other ways to learn how to be supportive? Let us know in the comments below!
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