If You Want To Be There For Someone But Don’t Know How, Ask This Question

I found a way to turn a giver into a receiver.

woman trying to comfort sad friend Parga / Shutterstock

Recently I’ve been trying to curb my habit of giving unsolicited advice. I only do it when something is presented as an issue (versus just telling a contented person they’re doing life wrong). Still, it’s not helpful and I’m actively trying to quit.

As part of this endeavor, I listened to this episode of Brené Brown’s Dare to Lead podcast called “The Advice Trap and Staying Curious a Little Longer.”


It’s an interesting discussion and I was gratified to learn Brené also struggles with the compulsion to give advice. I loved her joking rebuttal: “But what if you’re really, really good at it?” Touché.

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As part of the episode, they go through questions you can ask to help people come to their own realizations (versus trying to pre-emptively resolve their issues like an armchair therapist).

One question really stood out to me as a simple but revolutionary way to let someone know you’re there for them in their time of need:


What does support look like in this situation?

What I like about this question is it allows the person to choose the kind of assistance they might need (if any). I know I’ve done things in the spirit of being supportive that really missed the mark and I’ve been on the receiving end of that as well. I do believe it’s the thought that counts, but all of us who make an effort to be there for someone want to think we had a material impact on the situation.

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Recently a friend shared her diagnosis of stage 1 breast cancer. Her prognosis is excellent, but still, that’s the kind of news that shakes someone to the core. My friend, whom we’ll call Connie, is the epitome of loving, giving, and kind. We’ve been in an online accountability group together for 18-months, so even though I’ve never been in the same room as her I know a lot about her life and we’ve shared triumphs, insecurities, and setbacks.


Over the course of our relationship, Connie’s helped me with numerous business issues with no expectations in return. I never asked her to do those things, but she simply can’t let someone struggle if she can help out. Being supportive is in her nature.

Near the end of our hour, when Connie had finished her story, I asked the question I’d learned from Brené: “What does support look like in this situation?”

As I expected, she drew a blank. Connie’s far more used to giving than asking to receive. She’s super sharp and competent, but asking for help isn’t in her wheelhouse.

As the weeks passed, I thought many times about what I could do for Connie (other than being supportive), but I drew a blank. Fortunately, her husband is the chief cook in their home, so that’s taken care of. She also has a retired relative who’s a nurse, so she’s got plenty of help with in-home care.


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We don’t live anywhere near each other, so I couldn’t visit her even if she was up for it. Like many online friendships, I don’t even know her address, so I couldn’t even send flowers.

The day before her surgery, I sent Connie a note of support and ended with a reminder. “Keep my question in mind: ‘what does support look like?’”

A few hours later, Connie sent me a direct message.

“In the spirit of ‘what does support look like,’ I wonder if you would agree to be my liaison to keep my business friends updated on my progress for the next few weeks? That would take a load off my husband’s shoulders.”


I enthusiastically agreed.

When I texted her friends that she was out of surgery and doing well, they were all overjoyed to hear the news, even from a stranger.

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It felt so good to do something for a woman as lovely as Connie. She’s great about keeping in touch and I know she’d fret thinking people were worried about her. Taking even this small task off her hands feels great.

My guess is that if I’d said: “how can I help?”, Connie wouldn’t have had an answer. I think the question “what does support look like?” sends the message that making a request wouldn’t be a burden. She knew I genuinely wanted to be there to support her, and I think she’s more comfortable with that energy. I know I would have been as well.

It’s a question I’m going to keep handy to help me stave off the advice monster. A good one, for sure.

Ellen Eastwood is a freelancer, pop-culture enthusiast, and contributor to Yourtango.