Five Ways to be a Supportive Friend
At a previous job, I shared a cubicle with a friendly, funny woman in her late 30s that I will call Kim. Kim was rarely late for work, so when she didn’t come in one morning, everyone at work was concerned, especially Kim’s manager, with whom she was very close. It turned out that Kim had gotten ill on the train into work and ended up being hospitalized, requiring surgery.
When Kim returned to the office after surgery, I overheard a conversation that I will never forget. Kim’s manager came over to our cubicle and noticed that Kim smelled of cigarette smoke. Kim’s manager scolded her for smoking and loudly whispered, “Why are you doing this thing that is hurting you? As your friend, I am telling you that you need to stop.” Kim dropped her head and quietly said, “Don’t you have a vice?” Her manager said, “Yes, but my vices don’t kill me.”
Kim seemed so ashamed by her manager's comments. I lost touch and never found out if Kim did end up quitting smoking. Yet, still to this day, I wonder if Kim’s manager made the right move by giving her some tough love in that moment. Don’t get me wrong--I believe that true friends hold you accountable and should call you out when you’re doing something dumb. But I also wonder if surgery might have been punishment enough. What if Kim was already in the process of quitting? If so, her manager’s comment could have been the hit to the ego that drove her right back into the arms of her comforting cigarettes.
In the health behavior field, I hear a lot of behavior-shaming about how people need to simply “eat right and exercise more” or “stop drinking,” but obviously it’s not that easy for everyone--if it were, it wouldn’t be a problem. Kim was right: we all have our vices. Logic, judgement, or statistics about how bad something is won’t help someone who’s developed an emotional attachment to that thing.
So how, as friends, can we be supportive without condoning our friends’ destructive behaviors? Here are five strategies that I wish Kim’s manager would have used, that you can use to help your friends.
1. Consider the context
In Kim’s example above, the context of the conversation was completely inappropriate. First of all, this very personal conversation took place in the workplace. In a shared cubicle. Where someone else was present. And Kim had just come back to work after having surgery! Granted, maybe it seemed like a window of opportunity since Kim likely had health on the mind, but it might have been better for her manager to wait until the office cleared out or scheduled a private lunch to discuss. I’m not saying you need to have a formal sit-down for all serious conversations, but don’t make it more awkward than it has to be by catching someone in the middle of their workday. For some situations, an opportunity may arise where your friend actually brings the topic up on their own. Seize the moment by using this chance to start the conversation.
2. Don’t assume
Approach your friend with an open mind and a spirit of curiosity. Pretend you don’t know anything. Try to withhold your judgement as you ask questions to understand how your friend started this behavior, and why. Get a sense for what triggers them to continue the behavior, and if it’s gotten better or worse.
3. Listen up
Actually listen to what your friend is saying--and what they may not be saying. If they don’t seem to want to talk about the behavior, don’t push it. Hopefully they will open up to you or someone else close to them if they want to talk. It doesn’t hurt to remind them that if they change their mind, you’re here to listen. If they do start explaining their behavior to you, have empathy and see where they’re coming from.
4. Focus on solutions
Avoid dwelling on the past. Instead, focus on the present. Ask your friend how you can be helpful. Are there resources you can connect them with? Would they like you to just be their cheerleader along their journey? Do they want tough love, and for you to help hold them accountable if you catch them reverting to old behaviors?
If they aren’t ready to change, you can say something like, “If you do decide to make a change, I am here to support you in any way I can.” That way, you leave the door open for them to reach out when they are ready.
If your friend is dealing with seriously destructive addiction and you are concerned that you are enabling the behavior by continuing to be supportive, check out resources about how to stop enabling addictive behaviors.
5. Be the change
Understand that sometimes, no matter how hard you try to help someone, that person might not be ready (now or ever) to make that change. In that case, the best you can do is lead by example. Keep on doing the things that enrich your body, mind, and soul, and have faith that it could be contagious. Jim Rohn is known for famously saying that you are the average of the five people you spend the most time with. You have more influence on the people close to you than you may realize, so keep on keepin' on.
If you’re looking for support in changing your behavior or want to support others as they make changes, sign up for Supporti today.