It makes me happy that our blog is becoming known for, at the end of our rants, including concrete steps for supporting each others’ learning, or otherwise making the situation better. I first saw this practice over at Danny’s blog, which is awesome and you should read it. But I think it belongs in more than just writing. Personal relationships can benefit from it too.
My sweetie and I have started asking each other this in our everyday interactions. It’s really nice; even just hearing the words makes me feel supported. Until recently I was dating someone with whom I had a very stereotypical gendered dynamic: I would want to talk about something problematic that had happened in my day, and he would respond immediately with drastic suggestions (e.g. “you clearly hate your job, you should quit.”) Then when I pushed back he felt like I was rejecting him because I rejected his suggestion. And I felt like he didn’t respect my ability to make my own decisions. Entire publishing industries have been built on this dynamic. More have been built on “what is he/she thinking?” But really, the only way to know is to ask. “How can I support you” is the antidote to mansplaining.
“How can I support you” actively reminds me of my agency. Sometimes I haven’t thought about what I actually want, and it’s helpful to be reminded to do so. Sometimes what I want is just a listener. Sometimes it’s to be told I am a good person. Sometimes it’s a backrub or a bike ride. Rarely, it’s “I’d like you to look at this issue through the lens of your particular expertise and give me suggestions,” even though this is our cultural default assumption. Its uncommon to ask for something the other person can’t give, unless it’s time. And you can counter-negotiate too, especially with time. “Right now isn’t a good time for me to give you my undivided attention, can we schedule something for later this week?”
I have another friend whose husband died recently after a long and debilitating illness, leaving her a widow under age 30. She gets unsolicited advice from EVERYONE. People who really can’t imagine what she’s going through. The advice is mostly related to getting a job (she was his uncompensated caretaker for most of his illness) and managing her grieving process faster. She’s got some genuinely awful stuff going on, and there isn’t actually anything her friends can do to fix it. A few of us clued into the idea that the best thing we can do is just keep asking “how can we support you?” She has the even harder job of asking for money. I worry that the path she is choosing is not a quick one back to self-sufficiency and happiness, but I can’t magically fix it for her, because it wouldn’t be HER life. “How can I support you” reminds me of that.
What’s your preferred way to offer or receive support?