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How to Listen Supportively to a Friend in Need

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One of the most critical components of a close friendship is support. Friends rely on each other to be there during stressful times and to support one another during emotional and physical challenges. When an individual encounters a particularly traumatic or disturbing event, the support of a close friend could make a big difference in how well he or she copes.

Several studies have examined the effects of support during stressful times, but most have looked primarily at verbal responses. In a new study, Melissa Ming Foynes of the University of Oregon sought to explore how a person perceives support based on verbal and nonverbal responses.

Foynes recruited 53 sets of friends and asked one to disclose to the other a particularly distressing event that had not been previously shared. The exchanges were evaluated for verbal and nonverbal behavior, and the reactions of the disclosing friend were measured based on those factors. Foynes discovered that two factors influenced perceived support above and beyond all others:

  1. When listeners sat back in their chairs, the disclosers felt unsupported when compared to those who disclosed to listeners who sat upright.
  2. Listeners who interrupted moderately during the disclosures were perceived as more supportive than those who did not interrupt.

The results also revealed that the stability of the relationship between discloser and listener also affected the levels of perceived support so that those with strong relational bonds reported higher levels of perceived support than those with low levels of relational bonds. 

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Foynes believes these findings could be useful to clinicians working with people who have experienced trauma or stressors. “Such information can be used to guide friends and family in responding more supportively to first-time disclosures of stressful life experiences,” Foynes said. These results could help shape the direction of group and family therapies designed to help individuals cope with negative experiences.


  1. Foynes, M. M., Freyd, J. J. (2012). An exploratory study evaluating responses to the disclosure of stressful life experiences as they occurred in real time. Psychological Trauma: Theory, Research, Practice, and Policy. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1037/a0028408

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  • Emma August 30th, 2012 at 4:05 AM #1

    There are some friends, even close ones, who can’t make that step to becoming a supportive listener. I don’t know why some people excel at this and there are others who struggle. They are your friends, and they are good ones, but when it comes time to listening closely and having support and encouragement to offer, instead they are more prone to zone out and forget about your specific needs. Friends who can support you and listen when you have the need can be hard to come by. Treat them well and they should do the same for you.

  • Jon August 30th, 2012 at 12:06 PM #2

    I am always frozen and have no words when my friends tell me something that is bothering them.I don’t know why but its always been this way.But then I thought just being there for them and listening to them would help them feel better.This is not good news for those of us that cannot play well with words and giving advice.

  • serenity August 30th, 2012 at 4:01 PM #3

    The best thing that you can do is to commit to being there. be there without being selfish, think of what they are going through and how this could affect you. keep in mind just how serious this could be and what you could do to lend more support and be more of that friend that they need you to be.

  • emily August 30th, 2012 at 11:55 PM #4

    I think some people just have this quality of being good support to their friends and family.I have such a friend and I just cannot describe how lucky I consider myself to have her as a friend.She is always there in any problematic situation and supports all her friends and we sometimes call her ‘The Pisa tower’ because everybody leans on her and she is just so good at handling such situations.

    But then I do hope and pray that she or other people like her are not taken advantage of for their goodness.That happens,you know.And that is what could be the reason why many people want to stay away from others’ problems.Fear of being taken advantage of keeps people from helping others.

  • David L August 31st, 2012 at 5:16 AM #5

    I really can see so much truth in this. When I think that I am very actively listening my wife will get mad because I do something (shocking! to her) like lean back in my chair instead of leaning toward her. Or I may not shake my head or say mmmhmm at just the right spots in the conversation. How can I tell her that I really do hear what she’s saying when apparently my body language isn’t meeting her own expectations?

  • glendon August 31st, 2012 at 1:18 PM #6

    david,I can relate to what you say.Its hard with women but then again I think even we would be annoyed if we are talking and the other person is not paying attention. But women are so much better at spotting it, sometimes even when its not true ;)

  • David L September 1st, 2012 at 10:08 AM #7

    I know, but what I want her to realize is that maybe I just process the information in a different way than what she does but that doesn’t mean that I am not tuning in. It makes me just as frustrated to think that she thinks so lowly of me that she would even presume that I am not interested in what she has to say. Arrgghh, it feels like one of those situations where I can’t win no matter what I do!

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