Make Being Supportive Your Superpower

August 25, 2021
Dr. Kevin Mabie

When an individual in a classroom or office displays behaviors associated with anxiety, the Crisis Prevention Institute Crisis Development ModelSM speaks to the importance of being supportive. This should be easy, right? CPI suggests that we provide an empathic, nonjudgmental approach. If we can do so, we can often prevent an individual from escalating even further into those dangerous defensive or risk behavior levels of crisis. Or, at the very least, we are taking action to help a person to feel less anxious and more comfortable in one’s environment for that day.

Unfortunately, time and again, I’ve witnessed staff in the facilities where I’ve worked falling short of being supportive when a person has needed it. At times, that staff may even have been me. However, I’ve learned a thing or two about being supportive, and my learning stems from that CPI request to provide an empathic, nonjudgmental approach.

Earlier in my career, I was a high school language arts teacher. I taught high school freshmen and prided myself on an ability to get my students up-and-around the room, interacting with one another, growing their collaboration skills as they grew their understanding of language and literature. I also like to think I had a pretty good relationship with my students. They trusted me, and one day I had a chance to put that trust to good use. A normally energetic and outgoing young lady in my class was not her normal self. She quietly came into class that day and when we broke into groups, she stayed in her seat, staring down at her desk seemingly afraid to interact with anyone. I approached carefully, took a knee, and made eye contact; CPI had taught me more than a few things about being supportive! I knew something was wrong. Maybe there was some real trouble at home, or perhaps a family member had died. I was ready to help.

But then the student told me her bad news: her boyfriend had broken up with her. They had been dating for two whole weeks. And while it didn’t happen outwardly, my inner self was rolling my eyes. My inner dialogue was thinking “get it together, kid, this is going to happen many more times!” And unfortunately, my actual dialogue wasn’t being supportive either. I told the young lady that she needed to “not worry about that right now,” her group needed her, and I directed her to where she needed to be. She walked across the room and participated.

Kind of.

She and I never discussed anything going on in her personal life again. I had lost her trust, and I had not helped to reduce her anxiety. And while my intention was to approach that conversation as a teacher being supportive of a student, I eventually fell into judging it. I deemed it not important enough to negate her regular classroom responsibilities and quickly rid myself of my non-compliant student.

Looking back, there are likely several times when I judged a behavior or at least failed to be empathic. As a teacher, I had a tight schedule. I had content to cover and seemingly little time to support a student who wasn’t necessarily disrupting me. In front of the room trying to cover my content for a given day, I know there were several times I saw students putting their heads down, tapping fingers and pencils, and staring off into space with forlorn looks on their faces. However, I didn’t make the time to stop and be the supportive teacher that student probably needed. Ultimately, I learned that this lack of supportiveness is a mistake.

On one hand, I think I sometimes assumed that these behaviors were boredom. I wasn’t a boring teacher, and I would often draw students like this back in by asking them a question or two, but the withdrawn behaviors would often continue. I didn’t really do anything empathic or nonjudgmental by trying to draw those students back in. And whether it was boredom or not should not have mattered. I know that when I’m bored, I personally begin to worry about anything that might need some worrying about in my life. My mind goes down all sorts or rabbit holes. I get anxious; I need somebody to be supportive.

Whether you work in a school or in an entirely different type of facility, I want to first push you to truly be empathic. Take the time to understand and share the feelings of the person you’ve discovered to be demonstrating anxiety. I know this is challenging. Anxiety is all around us, all the time. However, we can make a choice to take that time at least once a day. Maybe it’s two or three times a day. That’s where I had to start. If you are a person whose job requires you to be in the presence of anxious people every day, it may not be possible to be empathic for every person; however, my CPI courses taught me that giving my time and empathy to some people each day can make a huge difference to those individuals and can have an exponential impact on the overall culture of my facility.

Second, I want to push you to be truly nonjudgmental. You may have mornings where you have to skip breakfast or don’t get any coffee; you may have days where traffic is bad, or you are simply running behind all day. You might be good at dealing with these situations without any anxiety at all. However, these little challenges might be what pushes one of your students, patients, clients, or colleagues to be a little (or a lot) off today. It’s in these situations where we have a choice to roll our eyes and tell a person to “get with the program,” or the choice to provide just a little empathic, nonjudgmental support to get that person back on track in a positive way.

Recently, I had a friend whose daughter was having tonsils taken out. Having four children myself, I have experienced three seamless tonsillectomies. If my fourth child needed to have tonsils removed, I would experience zero anxiety. However, this friend was worried about her daughter’s anxiety before the surgery; she was worried about her going all morning without eating; she was worried about the surgery itself, and she was anxious about the pain she would be in after. I could have judged her worry and deemed it unworthy of support. Hundreds of people have tonsillectomies each day and hundreds of people are just fine. Instead, I embraced this opportunity to help my friend by being supportive. I was empathic and gave her my time and encouragement; I tried to remember how I felt the first time one of my kids had a surgery. I was also nonjudgmental and affirmed her reasons for feeling anxious in the first place. Not surprisingly, her anxiety dissipated. THAT is the kind of support I hope I can give at least a handful of my clients and colleagues each day.

If you act on an individual’s anxiety by being supportive, you gain a superpower. You can prevent behaviors from escalating, and maybe even eliminate the anxiety altogether. I thank my past CPI Certified Instructors for helping me to see this, and I hope you will join me in reducing anxiety, one person at a time, as you move through your days.

Kevin Mabie, Ed.D. is a Global Professional Instructor at Crisis Prevention Institute, and an educator with over 20 years of experience as a high school teacher and administrator. Dr. Mabie also facilitates trainings for the National School Reform Faculty.

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