On our podcast ‘Tales That Tethr’, tethr Founder & CEO Matt Zerker interviews entrepreneurs, experts, thought leaders, and regular people about what is means to be a man, the challenges that modern men face, and how to overcome challenges and live life in a more connected and authentic way.
It’s not easy to see a friend struggling with mental health. As friends and as co-founders of tethr, Matt Zerker and Addison Brasil know this better than most. Over the course of their relationship, they’ve both been the one struggling and the one offering support. They know first-hand how difficult it is to find the right words.
As men, we’re often discouraged from having these kinds of conversations at all, making them even harder to navigate. It’s from those experiences that Matt and Addison created their five “Pillars of Peer Support” which offer a roadmap for having honest conversations, on and off the app. Below, our resident experts on offering non-expert support breakdown what to say, when to say it, and how to find out what a friend needs from you (TL;DR ask them)
What is peer support?
Matt Zerker: I think peer support fits into a really interesting space within the mental health solution landscape, and especially in the digital solution landscape. I think where we fit in, and Addison you can talk more about this, is that we’re not here to fix the problem for you. We’re not here to be professionals. We are here before, during, and after you get the support you need from a qualified professional. It’s more of a “we’re here for you man and we’re there to support you and if you need advice we’ll do our best” but really this is more about being a shoulder to lean on than anything else.
Addison Brasil: Yeah 100%. I think it’s really important to realize that as co-founders, Matt, Burke, and I have intentionally stayed at the peer level. We don’t have any certification, we’re not in pursuit of becoming therapists. We want to take the peer experience to the highest level possible and expand within that.
So based on many conversations with peers and professionals, we started to build our own definitions and these pillars of peer support that we think best enable the community to show up for each other effectively and efficiently. When we talked about what a peer supporter is we came up with it being: anyone who chooses to show up to another person with the intention of hearing their story, hold space, and create a relationship of balanced and boundary-driven support. And I think it’s really important to drive home that it’s something you choose to do.
MZ: Yeah, peer support shows up in a very different way than a professional would show up. This is meant to be a community where we are showing up because we want to be there — not only for the other people in the community but for ourselves. This is very much a reciprocal relationship.
This is something you talk a lot about Addison, the need to actually check-in with yourself and make sure that you are in a position mentally, emotionally, and physically where you can show up and provide support. It’s a lot sometimes to take on what another person is going through, especially when it’s heavy, they’re very anxious, or in extreme cases, if somebody doesn’t feel like being here anymore. So it’s really important that you’re checking in with yourself and figuring out whether you have the capacity to hold space for that person.
One of the nice things about our work and the way our relationship developed over the years is that we started our friendship from the position of being peer supporters. We were almost like a beta version of tethr because when we connected we were both going through heavy stuff.
AB: Yeah… I think so much of what you said centers around this idea of a balanced relationship. One thing to always remember is that in a true peer support relationship, you’re able to show up as either the support or the person being supported at any given time. One person doesn’t become the supporter.
Pillar One: Acknowledge the emotion
MZ: Right so let's jump into the first pillar that we kind of identified together which is this idea of acknowledgment, right?
Acknowledgement for me, really just means... identifying in your own mind what that person is trying to express to you, and then actively expressing that back to the person who’s struggling and acknowledging that it must be difficult to feel that way. Addison, do you want to jump in with a little bit about how we acknowledge people and why it's so important?
AB: I think it’s important that acknowledgment is a pillar because otherwise we sort of just move past it. We think if we’re speaking then we’re acknowledging. It’s important to acknowledge not only the person who’s beginning to share but the medium as well. If you’re in person, you’re engaging in eye contact, nodding, showing that you’re meeting them where they are with their body language. If this is on tethr, using the orange emoji to let them know you hear them and you’re listening. Even if they’re writing things out, in the breaks letting them know, “I’m listening, go on.” It’s a general acknowledgement that says I am here, this is a safe space.
MZ: And making sure they feel heard by acknowledging that you are there, right? Really acknowledging the feeling is important too. You know, “it sounds like you’re frustrated,” “it sounds like you’re upset,” that first step of making sure that person feels seen, heard and safe. And you can do that very quickly.
For a lot of people on the platform, this is the first time that they’ve ever felt heard or the first time they’ve ever had a space where they can have that conversation. They feel like their feelings aren’t valid. So right off the bat, making sure that they know what they’re feeling is valid, it’s a concern… it makes them feel safe in having the remainder of the conversation. Again, that’s something that a lot of men haven’t ever received in their entire lives. Yes it is okay for you to speak about what you’re going through and I acknowledge that this is difficult.
Pillar two: Practice Active and Empathetic Listening
MZ: That really segues into this idea of active and empathetic listening. You really wanna start looking for and identifying words that they are using to describe their situation and then use those in your response. By the same token, it’s perfectly acceptable to ask them, you know ‘it sounds like you’re feeling this way, would that be accurate?’ When you acknowledge the words they’re using, you make them feel seen and heard. You help them go deeper into that.
When somebody’s describing, let’s say a break up situation, you can say ‘I hear that, this situation must feel heartbreaking to you.’ To have that acknowledged is such a rare thing in our world today. For some people, it may be the first time that they’ve received that.
I know Addison you have a lot of thoughts, specifically on some of the principles of empathetic listening and making sure that you’re not just waiting to hear yourself speak.
AB: Yeah I think you hit such a good point. A good example of this that I always use is, if somebody were to say, ‘I just can’t do this anymore, I’m quitting my job, this is it.’ Often we jump to paraphrasing and assuming that this person is just emotional, they’re obviously not going to quit their job. We skip to doing that rather than just actively and empathetically listening, using their language and saying ‘I hear that you’re going to quit your job and this is it. What kind of job do you think you want to do next?’ That gives them the opportunity to really go, ‘okay, I did say that’ and they can’t deflect and say that’s not what I meant. It doesn’t get lost in your paraphrasing of what they’re feeling. You’re doing this in a completely empathetic way, it’s not a way to put someone’s words back on them and question whether or not they meant what they said.
One thing I love to do is to never, never, never assume that you know what a word means to somebody else. They say ‘I’m really hurting, I’ve never felt this hurt’ you can respond with ‘I’d love to hear what is hurting for you, what does that mean for you? How do you feel it in your body? Explain hurt to me.” We really want to go into that person’s vocabulary to expand and clarify. Allow them to do it and allow them to honor their experience. I love that quote that we often use, ‘you’re the expert of your experience.’ I’m not going to pretend to fully understand exactly what you’re saying and what this means for you, but I’m here as a safe space to listen and to hear you.
Pillar Three: Ask questions
MZ: I think that really dovetails nicely with the third pillar about asking questions. We want to make sure that when we do ask questions, we're asking them more ‘how come’ they feel that way versus ‘why’ they feel that way. And there's an important distinction right, so Addison maybe drop into it a little bit about that distinction.
AB: Yeah I think… If you ask ‘how come’ it really enables the person sharing to go into their experience of what’s happening, what’s contributing to the way they’re feeling. Often when we ask people ‘why’, they will go into the story, their sort of beliefs around why something happens.
It's about not going into the story of why they ended up here, but to process how they’re feeling right now. Matt is so good with this in the men's groups, and so good with this with me personally, when I'm having… I'm trying so hard not to say a good emotion, because I really do believe all emotions are good — but when I'm in a state of joy, Matt will say, how's that showing up for you? How does that feel in your body? And I appreciate that so much, because it's anchoring.
If somebody said to you, ‘I'm having the best day ever,’ you wouldn't interrogate them to come up with a story of why, why they got there, right? You would join them and celebrate them. Works the same for when they're feeling the lower vibration of feeling sadness, shame, whatever it is.
MZ: And I think that's such an important distinction. We want to try and stay away from the story as much as possible. How they are experiencing the situation versus why that situation has occurred. And this is really important when we start to get into people who are actually in crisis. Again, we are not crisis supporters, we are not crisis counselors on this application, what we can do is identify whether a person might actually need additional support from somebody that is a qualified professional, versus just another guy to speak with.
Pillar Four: Assess from your point of view: is this person in crisis? If you feel they are, ask
AB: Like Matt was saying now, the fourth pillar is assessing from your own point of view, if you think that this person is in crisis. This isn’t a professional assessment, it’s not an assessment that you are liable for in any way. Obviously if they’re just describing a bad day and you have no reason to believe it, it isn’t necessary to ask them if they are currently in crisis. But if you believe this person might be in crisis, if it’s even a possibility or they’ve alluded to things, it is okay to ask.
We want to empower every man to be able to ask another man this: do you feel safe? Are you currently in crisis? Asking that question does not make it worse, it gives them the opportunity to clarify.
So if they answer yes, they are in crisis, you play your role as a peer. You let them know that you will be there for them before, during, and after using whatever crisis resources they prefer. But letting them know that you are just a peer. It’s the same as if a friend broke an arm. You’re going to drive them to the hospital, you’re going to wait in the waiting room, you’re going to be there for every part of the process. But you’re certainly not going to start operating in the middle of the street using whatever you can find. That’s just not how it works. How could you be there in every way, other than doing what the doctor actually does when someone goes through something?
Pillar Five: Ask what support looks like for them in that moment
AB: And that goes quite nicely into the next pillar I think Matt, of asking them what support looks like to them in that moment. If they're not in crisis, we don’t have to have all the answers, we just have to be there. This also empowers you to not fall into doing the ‘wrong’ thing. They might say ‘I’d really like some advice’ and there’s your opportunity to say ‘well I actually went through something similar, here’s what happened with me.’ But they might say ‘I just really need someone to listen today.’ So then you just listen and let them know you hear them. Support can look like something different for everyone. Instead of guessing, just ask.
MZ: Right. One of the things I think we have a tendency to do as men is we want to jump in and fix the problem, especially in supportive relationships like the ones on tethr. And I think it’s really important to understand that being a peer supporter doesn’t necessarily mean you are going to make them feel better. In fact, it is not your job to make them feel better. This is the difference between fixing somebody and holding space. Holding space means that you are there and you are receptive to whatever that person is saying and feeling.
It's been my experience that more often than not, people just want somebody to listen, they want it to feel like their feelings are valid. And they want it to feel like they're not struggling in silence, and they're not struggling alone. The problem may not be fixable, or they may know intuitively how to fix the problem. What they're really struggling with is the isolation of feeling the way they do. And that can be the true healing power of a peer relationship.
Check-in with how YOU feel after the conversation
MZ: There's going to be a feeling state and an energy state that sort of persists with you after you give support, especially if you're doing so over a phone call, or over video chat. So it's really important that after you leave this conversation or that engagement, that you start by checking in with yourself. How did supporting feel for you?
When somebody is anxious, you know, sometimes it makes us feel a little squirmy. We literally have these neurons in our brains that are identifying the emotions that person is going through and this is what helps us have empathy. So know that if somebody's been anxious or they feel down or depressed and you're feeling a little bit down depressed or anxious afterwards, that's actually a perfectly normal thing to be happening. What you're feeling has more to do with that conversation than anything that's really going on with you in that moment.
AB: Yeah, just stay responsible with your own well being. Doing a grounding exercise, something that brings you joy, raising your heart rate, whatever it is. What would help raise your state? Maybe that was heavy, or maybe, even in times when people are over-celebrating, ask how that made you feel. Just being aware of that and celebrating that awareness is what's important. And having that minute where you go, are there any new boundaries that I want to set?
We always have to go back to those personal boundaries. If we're not taking care of ourselves, obviously, we're not going to be in a place to support others. We have the entire community full of other guys, it's not always on you to put everything down that you're feeling to support somebody else.
MZ: It's like the thing on the airplane, right, you always put your mask on first before assisting anybody else beside you. So make sure that you're putting your mask on first, that you're checking in with yourself before you go through the process. And you're checking in with yourself afterwards.
It's not about giving the perfect piece of advice. It's just about skillfully directing the conversation so that that person can take advantage of their own resources that they already have.