8 Tips For Supporting A Mate
Men really want to talk, they just need the right environment, attitude, and questions to feel comfortable opening up.
So often people want to reach out to someone but don’t know how to start the conversation, hold a comfortable space, or know what to do when the conversation gets tough. All the tips I’m discussing are tailored for talking with men, but generally apply to women too, especially when a person identifies as being more masculine in nature. A major barrier to talking with men about their deepest challenges is our collective belief that men don’t want to communicate about how they’re feeling.
People always ask me: “How do you find men willing to open up for your Tough Talk videos?”
The implication of this question seems to be that such men are a rare breed, yet this hasn’t been my experience at all. I regularly talk to men from a variety of backgrounds as I travel around New Zealand and many men leap at the opportunity to tell their stories.
Every so often I come across a man who could be described as “macho”. I find that as long as I use language they’re familiar with, ask open questions, remain respectful, and show a willingness to listen, then almost anyone will open up. The only exceptions have been when someone is really angry, anxious, sad, or simply not in the right mood to talk.
“If you think men don’t want to express their deep emotional pain, then you’re subtly
feeding into “the hard man” attitude implicit in Kiwi culture.”
TIP #1: It’s easier for a mate to open up while doing an activity.
It can be intimidating for someone to open up in response to an invitation “to talk”. Their mind often goes to wondering what they’ve done wrong. It’s much easier for someone to accept an invitation to do an activity. Conversations flow better when people are engaged in activity while speaking. For hundreds of years men have stood side by side in silence and companionship as they hunted, primarily using their eyes and body to communicate. Like hunting, other activities can provide a medium for communication. Having something to partially focus on makes tough conversations less intense and opens opportunities for nonverbal communication.
Here’s some one on one activities for you to consider: throwing a ball, walking, playing cards, fishing, building, crafts, running, gardening, shooting hoops, biking, and hunting...
TIP #2: Having the strength to share your own challenges makes it easier for a mate to talk.
A standout lesson from my journey has been that when I’m honest about my own insecurities and shed a tear, it supports others to do the same. Baring my soul seems to create a space where absolute honesty feels comfortable and safe. Often I don’t need to ask people any questions afterwards; people’s stories and emotions start flooding out.
If enough of us have the strength to be role models then there is potential for a ripple effect which could contribute to an improved culture of support. We start to see widespread social change when enough people are living according to a new social norm. Being honest about our internal struggles could become the normal thing!
TIP #3: A private space to talk one on one makes it easier for a mate to open up.
It can be really off-putting when someone brings up a sensitive issue in front of a group of people. It’s hard enough to accept challenging issues within the privacy of our own mind, let alone have them broadcast to our peers without warning. It doesn’t matter if everyone can see what’s going on already, talking about it in a group without permission can bring on shame and embarrassment.
"A person has a much higher chance of working through an issue if their first experience of talking about it is accompanied by feelings of support and acceptance”
Inviting someone into a private space for a one on one chat is a comfortable environment to talk within. There’s a lot you can do to create a tailored space for a tough conversation. For a start, make sure you have enough time to go deep (I recommend around 2 hours, but it fully depends on the situation), you could be doing an activity together (see Tip #1), you could provide some beverages and snacks (there’s something deeply comforting about sharing a meal), you could be playing suitable music in the background, and it may be appropriate to be situated in mutual territory, i.e. neither one of you has more power in the space, such as owning it.
It’s easier to talk when sitting next to someone, angled slightly towards them, but not directly facing them. It can feel more threatening when you’re sitting directly opposite each other. Ideally you won’t have anything in between you, like a table or desk as it creates a barrier to nonverbal communication. I’ve found that an ideal setting is in the outdoors, particularly by a fire, a body of water, or anywhere with a view.
TIP #4: Ask permission to talk and accept “no” for an answer.
It is really important to ensure someone is in the right space for a tough conversation. One approach is to invite the conversation through mentioning a relevant situation, e.g. “It must be hard not having your partner around anymore… Do you want to talk about it?” You could also try being more direct “I’ve noticed you’re going through a tough time, do you want to talk?” A useful follow up question is “what’s happening?”, rather than “what’s wrong?”
Sometimes the person won’t be in the right space to receive support. An opportunity for someone to express what they’re going through may be detrimental if they’re preoccupied by a strong emotion or mood, an immediate problem, a pressing task, or about to enter a situation where it isn’t safe to be emotionally vulnerable. Once you open something up it can take a while to close, so make sure you factor that into timing.
It is important that you respect when someone says “no”. Let them know you’re there for them when they’re ready to talk or make a date for the future.
There is also the possibility that you’re not the best person for them to talk to. If you think this is the case, you could ask someone else if they would be willing to support them instead. You could also ask the person if you’re the right person for them to talk to and find someone else if you’re not. You might feel offended that someone isn’t willing to open up to you. Try your best to remember that support is about what is best for the person you are supporting.