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Social Connection
All About | Resources
Finding Supportive Relationships
All About | Self-Assessment | How To's | Resources
Providing Support
All About | Self-Assessment | How To's | Resources

Social Connection

All About

There is a growing body of research showing the importance of having positive relationships in our lives. In fact, the kinds of relationships as well as the number of social relationships we have greatly contribute to our overall mental and physical health (see Keyes, 1998; Ryff, 1995).

One of the keys to making and maintaining connections with others is the ability to develop and foster relationships. This ability is known as “interpersonal skills”. Like any kind of skill, interpersonal skills can be learned. That’s the good news! The bad news is that this is a skill set that is often taken for granted. It is true that some people seem to naturally be able to socialize with others in any kind of setting. These are the folks who tend to have lots of friends because people want to be around them. But for many of us, this seemingly easy and natural ability does not come quite so easily. Lots of people struggle to meet others or to deepen their connections with friends, even partners.

Social Relationships and Health

What we know for sure is that interpersonal skills are directly linked to our ability to make and keep relationships. What we are now finding out is that these social connections have a huge influence on both our physical and mental well-being.

In one study (Cohen, Doyle, Skoner, Rabin, & Gwaltney, 1997) the number and diversity of social relationships was found to be important to one’s susceptibility to cold and flu. Of 276 participants in the study, those who had three or fewer types of relationships (i.e., spouse, parents in-law, children, other close family members, close neighbours, friends, workmates, schoolmates, fellow volunteers, religious and non-religious group affiliations) were 4x more likely to catch a cold than were persons with six or more relationships! They tested this by injecting all participants with rhinoviruses that cause cold and flu symptoms.

There are also many studies that show that social isolation (i.e., not having social relationships) is a significant health risk factor. In fact, the negative health risks of social isolation is comparable to the health risks of smoking, having high blood pressure, being obese, or not getting enough physical activity. (To read more about the studies that looked at the impact of social isolation on health see Kiecolt-Glaser, McGuire, Robles, and Glaser, 2002; Bowling & Grundy, 1998).

Finding Your Bearings

There are six main interpersonal skills that are necessary to developing supportive and healthy relationships. They are:

  1. Finding Supportive Relationships
  2. Giving Support
  3. Being Assertive
  4. Self-Disclosure
  5. Emotional Expression
  6. Managing Conflict

The first two, finding supportive relationships and giving support, are explained further here in the City of Social Connection. You must travel a little further into the Springs of Emotional Expression to learn more about self-disclosure and emotional expression. Since conflicts can arise in any relationships, you may find it useful to venture into the Forest of Conflict to learn about how to handle relationship tension and trouble. Be careful to not get lost and tangled-up in the forest though – there’s some good information on Forgiveness, Spirituality, and Meaning on the other side.

Resources

References

Bowling, A. & Grundy, E. (1999). The association between social networks and mortality in later life. Reviews in Clinical Gerontology, 8, 353 – 361.

Cohen, S., Doyle, W. J., Skoner, D. P., Rabin, B. S., & Gwaltney, J. M. (1997). Social ties and susceptibility to the common cold. Journal of the American Medical Association, 25, 1940 – 1944.

Keyes, C. L. M. & Waterman, M. B. (2003). Dimensions of well-being and mental health in adulthood. In Bornstein, M. H., Keyes, C. L. M., and Moore, K. A., Well-being: Positive development across the life course. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Kiecolt-Glaser, J. K., McGuire, L., Robles, T. F., and Glaser, R. (2002). Emotions, morbidity, and mortality: New perspectives from psychoneuroimmunology. Annual Review of Psychology, 53, 83 – 107.

Ryff, C. D. & Keyes, C.L.M. (1995). The structure of psychological well-being revisited. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 69, 719 – 727.

Spitzberg, B. H., & Cupach, W. R. (2002). Interpersonal skills. In Knapp, M. L. & Daly, J. A. (2002), Handbook of interpersonal communication. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage publications.

Finding Supportive Relationships

All About

Health Benefits of Receiving Social Support

Fosters psychological adjustment
  • Improves coping with upsetting events
  • Improved functioning (task performance) under stressful conditions
Improves physical health
  • Improves resistance and recovery from illness
  • Reduces mortality


To date, studies show that the availability of social support in our lives is beneficial to our psychological health. Specifically, having supportive people around us improves our ability to cope and function in times of stress. Not surprisingly, social support also improves our ability to fend off bacteria and germs that potentially cause illness. These two health benefits may be linked. In fact, there is a theory that states that when we believe we have good supportive relationships in our lives, this actually reduces the level of stress we feel when negative events happen! Another bonus is that it therefore reduces the likelihood of developing stress-related mental conditions and physical illnesses. So, just believing you have support can be beneficial to health!

Did you know that people who have at least a few social supports have even been found to live longer than persons who don’t have any meaningful relationships? Although the particular types and number of relationships varied in the studies, the bottom line is that having even one person to talk to and to share our joys, sorrows, and other stress with, can be extremely beneficial to well-being.

Self-Assessment

Finding Support Worksheet — evaluate how you have met people in the past

How To's

Finding and Initiating Relationships

Sometimes, especially when we are lonely or feeling down, we tend to lose sight of how and where to find relationships. And, when you’re feeling that way, just meeting people takes a lot of energy, and then developing relationships may seem like too much effort. But the effort is worth it! Social isolation leads to feelings of loneliness and depression. Depression may lead to believing that you are unable to get yourself out into the world, which then leads to continued isolation and feelings of loneliness. This can become a vicious cycle.

The most important thing to remember is that in order to find relationships we need to put ourselves in social situations! Staying home and watching TV by ourselves does NOT give us any opportunity to meet people. Meeting people does take effort. And the effort is worth it! So, where to begin…

Where to look for supportive relationships?

  • Colleagues at work
  • Religious congregations
  • Social, cultural, political, and recreational associations
  • Volunteering
  • Support Groups
  • Neighbours
  • Pets
  • Internet

Workplaces are often good places to find friendship and support. This is because we spend a lot of time with coworkers and usually we have many things in common with them, like the experience of working in the same place, the educational requirements, and so on. It is true though, that friendships with people from our workplaces can sometimes be risky and challenging depending on things like the level of workplace competition. Also, in order to find friends at work, you need to have a job that puts you in touch with others. So, it’s not a potential source of support if you don’t have a job, or if you work by yourself.

Involvement in groups is another source for finding support. Belonging to a religious group or congregation has long been known to be a powerful source of support and friendships. Similarly, participation in a social, political, or recreational group can be a strong source of friendships. It is common interest that brings people together. Please be aware though, that you usually need to give these activities a chance by attending a few meetings before people become comfortable and secure with you (and you with them). With that said though, people are often more relaxed and talkative when they are participating in leisure activities that they like or that they have some knowledge about…and, as noted, showing up for such an activity guarantees that you will have at least one common interest.

There is also research that says that volunteering can be a strong source of support. Volunteering has the added benefit of giving you an opportunity to get a sense of satisfaction from contributing to the well-being of people in your community (this also is an important factor related to well-being as you will soon see). Why not maximize your chances for finding support by putting yourself in places where others are likely to be helping and caring people (i.e., among other volunteers). Similarly, there are a variety of support groups in almost every city that encourage us, in a safe atmosphere, and help us share our feelings, concerns, and even laughter about whatever problem or concern we may be facing. These groups can often be found in the community events sections of various newspapers, or sometimes lists of these organizations can be found in your nearest public library.

Sometimes, we tend to ignore the most obvious and most accessible sources of potential support such as our families, children, and neighbours. Obviously, family relationships are already in place so we don’t need to start from scratch. Working on existing relationships, to deepen the bond and build on the relationship may be the best way to increase the support in our lives. And neighbours can make great friends. Making an effort to say hi to your neighbour or to lend a helping hand can result in the burgeoning of a mutual friendship…we can’t build friendships if we don’t take the first initial and courageous step to initiate an interaction with someone though.

This may also be somewhat surprising, but there is evidence that pets can provide a fair amount of support, especially for people who find themselves in remote or secluded situations. No matter how tough your day may have been, people can usually count on an accepting two or four-legged animal to provide them with comfort.

Are you connected? Research on internet interactions has shown that the internet can be another useful source of social support. The internet is attracting the attention of psychological researchers, and being that this appears to be another promising source of support, it is discussed further in the following section.

A Relatively New Source of Social Support: Cyber-Support

Internet relationships are a relatively new phenomenon, but many people seem to be finding friendship and support on-line. Although there is considerable debate surrounding the effects of the internet on the types and quality of on-line relationships, it is certain that the internet is playing a significant role in many people’s social lives. There is a fair amount of research that tells us the internet is very successful as a provider of social support; some authors have gone as far as to call it “fabulously successful” (Walther & Parks, 2002). It is especially beneficial for people who are suffering from particular illnesses or stressful events.

The internet has been found to be successful in providing support for the following reasons:
 

Internet Communication Benefits

Anonymity — The large number of people, in combination with the use of fake names (pseudonyms) tends to provide protection, especially in cases where someone has an embarrassing or stigmatizing disorder.

Accessibility and convenience — You can usually find someone to talk to on the internet anytime of day or night. It is also easier for people who have limited mobility, provided they have an easily accessible computer to work on.

More Time to Think — You have more time to think about your responses with email or even with instant messengers (like chat rooms). There is more time and opportunity to carefully read messages, and a chance to express oneself more effectively (albeit with restriction on your nonverbal communication). This can sometimes be a benefit for people who struggle to make conversation. It allows you time to think about your responses and to practice being in conversations that happen at a slower pace.

Global Diversity and Commonality — You can seek and find people with common difficulties and interests from all over the world, and explore the similarities and differences in their experiences. If you have a rare problem or condition, or one that is more common in another culture, your chances of finding someone on the internet with that condition, issue, or problem is likely greater than in your closer community.

Surfer Beware!

Like any other interaction, there is potential for deception or misleading presentations in internet communications. You should do everything that you can to verify that the support group that you seek out is reputable and authentic. If you have any doubts, don’t continue to engage in the conversation, and seek out new connections instead. The following website is a useful one for alerting you to the other social and security risks associated with internet usage: www.netsafe.org.nz/adults/adults_default.aspx.

One important hazard to avoid in internet interactions is to ensure that your time and use of it does not hurt or take away from your already-established in-person relationships. It is not worth it to lose closer relationships over your communication with someone you may never meet in person.

Conversation Starters and First Impressions: Simple but Tricky

For some of us, one of the most difficult things in meeting people is knowing what to say. Having the courage and confidence, and tact/skill to introduce ourselves or to begin a conversation is the first step in making a connection. This can be a real stumbling block for people. Below are some common types of initial interactions that people have. It can be difficult and awkward to know what to say, but sometimes we just have to take a chance.
 

Compliments — “That’s a nice tie where did you get it?”

Non-invasive questions — “So how long have you been a member of this bicycling club?”

Light Humorous comment or interjection — “I would have brought my canoe if I knew it was gonna rain this hard.”

Appropriate Comment or Disclosure — (to be discussed further sections) “I have a shirt just like that.”

Open-ended questions — “So how did you become interested in knitting?”


One of the keys to initiating interactions is to maintain the optimistic attribution style that was explored on the Plains of Optimism. As the old proverb goes, “It takes two tango” and it “takes, at-least two, to converse and have an interaction”. Therefore, one cannot always be blaming oneself when an interaction does not go that well. Furthermore, it is important not to feel like a failure just because somebody didn’t react with great enthusiasm to our attempt to strike up a conversation. This initial interaction may have already gone a long way in “breaking the ice”. Perhaps the next time you run into them, there will be a longer conversation. Another common pitfall is that some of us believe that everybody should instantly like us. It is unrealistic to think that everyone will think we’re great. What that means is that we need to accept that some people aren’t that interested in us and to say to ourselves, “that is OK” and continue to capitalize on the opportunities, like those discussed above, to establish positive relationships instead of ruminating on those that don’t go that well. Admittedly this takes courage and perseverance. But, as research has shown, it is worth taking the risks because having social support improves our physical and mental health.

Did you know that there have been estimates that as many as 30% of Americans consider themselves shy and anxious in social situations (e.g., Pilkonis, Heape, and Klein, 1980 as cited in Daly, 2002)? If you have considerable difficulty in initiating interactions you may also want to consider seeing a counsellor or psychologist for support and guidance. There are established techniques and interventions that are effective for helping people with social anxiety and excessive shyness.

Remember that it’s not easy to develop new relationships. We may meet many new people, before we find someone that might be a friend. And friendships take time to grow. Try to go into meeting new people with an expectation that you’ll need to meet several people before you find someone that you’d like to go for coffee with, and they would like to go for coffee with you! This type of attitude can help us to take the pressure off ourselves, and allow us more freedom to enjoy meeting new people.

Connections Worksheet — think through where to start in making connections

Resources

References

Daly, J. A. (2002). Personality and interpersonal communication. In Knapp, M. L. & Daly, J. A. (2002), Handbook of interpersonal communication. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage publications.

Walther, J. B., & Parks, M. R. (2002). Cues Filtered Out, Cues Filtered In: Computer-mediated communication and relationships. In Knapp, M. L., & Daly, J. A., Handbook of interpersonal communication. Thousand Oaks, CA : Sage Publications.

Providing Support

All About

“Supporting others is a fundamental form of human interaction, just as central to the human experience as persuading, informing, or entertaining one another”
       (Burleson and MacGeorge, 2002)


Although most relationships involve both receiving and giving support (and these processes often occur together) we are briefly going to focus on the giving of social support in this section.

Just as having support in our lives plays a big role in our overall well-being, giving support to others is equally as important. This is because giving others support or being considered supportive in our relationships, is crucial to the maintenance of those relationships. And we know that having healthy social relationships is extremely important to our physical and mental health.

The question is, “What does it mean to provide support and how do we do that?” There are number of types or ways of providing support have been identified. These are described below, with examples to give you a better idea of how to go about it.

Network Support

This means taking steps to help others feel connected or like they belong. For example:

  • You might want to invite someone to play on your sport team at work or ask someone for his/her thoughts at a staff meeting.
Esteem-boosting Support

We all need to feel good about ourselves. Providing reassurance of worth is making it clear that you like someone and think they are important. For example:

  • You could say something like: “Wow, you’ve worked really hard on that project and it looks great!”
  • “I’m glad you decided to volunteer with our organization, you really have a lot of expertise that we can use”
Information Based Support

Support can also be given in the form of providing information and advice when it is appropriate to do so. For example:

  • “Gee, maybe you should get that rattle in your car checked out. It kind of feels like you might need a wheel alignment. Getting it looked into could save you lots of money on tires in the long run.”
  • “You seem really stressed right now. I wonder if you should wait for a bit, before making this decision”
Tangible Support

Another source of giving support is through providing tangible support. That means offering money, or some other kind of physical or material help. For example:

  • “No problem, I can lend you a little cash to get you through the month.”
  • “Why don’t you borrow my roto-tiller instead of going out and renting one.”
Emotional Support

Emotional support involves making expressions of care, concern, and sympathy. And the key to providing emotional support is…being available to LISTEN For example:

  • “I’m really concerned about you, how has the whole experience been for you?”
  • “Wow, it sounds like you’ve had a really challenging time with this whole situation. Is there anything I can do to help?”

Emotional support has been identified as the most helpful and important kind of support you can give to others. It is also the most challenging type of support you can offer! Deciding what to do to be emotionally supportive can be difficult to determine and it sometimes feel awkward, especially if we don’t have a lot of practice at it. Listed below in the How To’s section are some ways of providing emotional support that you may find helpful.

How To's

The following three boxes are guidelines for what to do and what not to do when providing emotional support.

 

High Levels of Emotional Support:
Recognizing and Validating Other’s feelings

Highly emotionally supportive statements are comforting messages that explicitly promote the complete sharing and exploration of feelings. The supporter plays a role in helping the other to experience their feelings, and to explore for themselves why they feel the way they do.

Helping others to express their feelings

How did you feel when that happened?

Looking at the fit of those feelings to the broader context

Wow, I’d be exhausted, if I had been through everything you have.

Being non-judgmental in your response

Sounds like this has been tough for you.

Expressing a desire to be helpful

I’m not sure what I can do to help, but I’d like to.

 

Moderate Levels of Emotional Support:
Recognizing Feelings but Distracting from Them

This type of support can be somewhat helpful because it does involve acknowledging the other person’s feelings. But, moderate levels of support don’t go far enough because there is a tendency to try to distract the person from their feelings rather than allowing them the opportunity to express their emotions. Emotional expression, as will be discussed later in the Springs of Emotional Expression, has been found to have substantial benefits for mental health. Consequently, providing moderate levels of support is not surprisingly, only moderately helpful. Here’s what we mean about the tendency to stop short of helping the person to fully express their feelings.

Distract attention from bothersome circumstance

Gee, that’s too bad. But, it’s a nice day! Want to go for a run?

Express sympathy/condolence

I’m sorry to hear that. (and then change the subject)

Alternative interpretations of the event to reduce stress

Maybe this is for the best? (This is putting a positive spin on things before the person has really done the work needed to get to a point of being able to see that there might be a “silver lining”.)

 

What Not to Do:
Denying the Other’s Feelings

This type of support is generally not very helpful, and may actually be harmful to your relationship with that person. Try to avoid this whenever possible.

Challenging the legitimacy of feelings

I don’t think you have any good reason to feel that way. It wouldn’t be a big deal to me.

Criticizing the other’s feelings

That is just plain stupid that you feel that way.

Telling the other how he should act and feel

Don’t’ let it bother you. Just focus on your work and pull up your socks. Ignore it.

 

Feelings sometimes don’t make sense but that doesn’t mean that we don’t have them. You may think that feeling hurt about the situation your friend is telling you about seems weird. And maybe if the shoe was on the other foot, you wouldn’t react the same way. But the point in providing emotional support is to listen to what the other person is telling you, not to judge them for the feelings they have or to tell them they shouldn’t feel that way. Essentially, your job is to listen, and to try to understand what is happening for that person.

In the next “Self-assessment” section you’ll have an opportunity to explore a common situation where emotional support could definitely be useful. This is likely a situation that most of us have had some experience with.

Self-Assessment

Exercise#1: Love Lost — Identify the level of support a response provides

Exercise #2: Being in a Supporting Role — How do you support others?

More How To's

If emotional support is something that you struggle to give, practise may be very important! Many of us, particularly men, have been socialized to give tangible support (loan of a tool or a cup of sugar) or information based support (you’ll need to put some air in that tire), but not to give emotional support. Just saying the words, “How do you feel about that?” can seem scary to say aloud. You can start by doing some role plays in your head, and visualize yourself supporting someone emotionally. Then try it out with a friend or a partner during a low stress situation (how are you feeling about your new job?). As you practise the skill in more low key situations, you’ll become more comfortable with it, and be able to use it during tougher conversations as well.

It is also possible that you are quite good at giving emotional support, but have a friend or partner that has trouble receiving that type of support. Have a look at the different types of support described in this section. Is there another type of support that they could receive? How could you offer it?

Resources

References

Burleson, B. R., & MacGeorge, E. L. (2002). Supportive communication. In Knapp, M. L. & Daly, J. A. (2002), Handbook of interpersonal communication. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage publications.

Spitzberg, B. H., & Cupach, W. R. (2002). Interpersonal skills. In Knapp, M. L. & Daly, J. A. (2002), Handbook of interpersonal communication. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage publications.
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