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It’s good to Talk!: The Supporters Guide

The Art of Having Great Supporter Conversations

How to maximise the support around you.


  • Introduction
  • The Supporter Model
    • Listening
    • Probing
    • Encouraging
  • Supporting to Help Resolve Issues / Problems
  • ‘How To’ Charts Providing Tips on Listening, Probing, Encouraging
  • Supporter Summary 

Overview & Key Points from the Technical Topic Partner

Chris Dunn of The TDA Transitions & Learning Organisation Ltd has been advising senior business people on career transition matters for over 30 years.

  • Chris Dunn
    Chris Dunn
    TDA Transitions & Learning Organisation Ltd

[email protected]

Introduction to the topic

“It’s good to talk!”

The opportunity to talk things through with someone who is independent and objective is very helpful and this is why your friend/colleague has requested your involvement.

This Guide, therefore, is for You.  It is designed to equip you with the knowledge you will need to be successful in your Supporter role.

Typically the Supporter’s contribution takes place within a wider support network of family members but because you are outside of this immediate circle, and therefore more independent, you have the potential to bring something importantly different to the party – to help create objectivity and clarity.

We assume that you are someone who:

  • Knows your friend sufficiently well to appreciate their personal circumstances
  • Will be able to judge/sense the accuracy of their responses to the activities, exercises and thinking they are working through
  • Ideally, will have seen your friend in a variety of personal and work scenarios

Apart from commenting and providing your responses to specific questions, possibly relating to assessments, exercises and plans that your friend has been working on, we can see your role being extended to:

  • Lending a ‘confidential ear’ and acting as a sounding board
  • Listening to their analysis, conclusions, and plans and making suitable comments or suggestions, but at their request
  • Helping to establish the practicality and rigour of plans by checking out ideas and by asking questions to test understanding.  Also to support and challenge as appropriate so they can revisit and refine their thinking
  • Encouraging and giving confidence

Three golden rules

Supporters should:

  • Not be critical but instead be challenging, where appropriate, to clarify plans, ideas and thinking and to test understanding.
  • Not promote their own ideas at the expense of their friend.  Ask not Tell is the prime rule here to keep in mind as asking puts the ownership where it should be, with the person you are supporting.
  • Encourage and enable the person being supported to create and make their own choices and decisions

All the very best to you both and I trust that these simple ‘conversation-based’ guidelines are helpful.

Chris Dunn
TDA Transitions and Learning
Special Adviser to Working Free

The supporter model

There are three main aspects to the Supporter role.  These are shown in the clover-leaf model below:

Listen Probe Encourage

This consists of three sets of behaviours:

  1. Total Listening
  2. Testing Reality
  3. Building Confidence

We are now going to look at each one and provide a few pointers on the way you can apply the model to Supporter conversations.  The model is built on the simple principle that the Supporter’s role is fundamentally about helping a friend or colleague to make best-fit decisions for themselves.  It is therefore one which encourages the art of having great conversations where your friend or colleague is centre stage and your role as Supporter is to listen, probe and encourage.

We listen to people all the time, of course, but this role requires a special sort of listening – particularly when the person you are supporting is exploring a new area, but you will need to give them total listening at many other points as well.

This means:

  • listening to your friend with your full attention. (You cannot really listen if you are thinking about what to say next).
  • not disagreeing or criticising. (Even if you want to).
  • not putting forward your own ideas too quickly. (It is very important that your friend has the space to explore their personal thoughts. You will have the opportunity to share your thoughts at the right moment – see below under Testing Reality and Building Confidence).

To summarise, you should sit quietly and attentively, removing all potential distractions so the individual can explore personal ideas.  That is why we refer to this as total listening.

See Chart 1 on page 6 for some ideas on how to apply ‘Total Listening’.

After a period of total listening, it is often useful to help test ideas against reality.  You do this by asking questions to:

  • elicit more detailed thinking on particular points
  • encourage exploration of how realistic certain ideas are
  • help clarify how important certain factors are to the individual, etc.

In other words, use questions, or probes as they are sometimes called, to help sharpen up and refine ideas.  Some examples of probes are listed in Chart 2 on page 6.

When you are satisfied that you have covered all the material which needs clarification, ask if this is the right moment for you to offer your ideas and suggestions.

Helping someone to have the confidence and motivation to act is one of the most important services that you can offer.  Some ways of going about it are set out in Chart 3 on page 7.

Summarise at the end of each part of the conversation and conclude by summarising and agreeing what the individual is going to do next.  This could equally apply to you.

You will have to exercise your judgement about which form of support you should provide in any given situation, but overleaf you will find specific suggestions relating to each component of the model – Listening, Probing and Encouraging – to achieve your Supporter outcomes.

‘How to’ Charts

  • Showing interest, attention and concern by picking up on the information and emotion (both cues are important) are all ways of demonstrating total listening.
  • It is worth emphasising once again that summarising and asking relevant questions also shows you are ‘with’ someone, despite the fact that you remain quiet for most of the time.  Restating what has been said can also be useful: ‘What I hear you saying is ….’  ‘Can you go over X again …’  ‘Let me get that right ….’  ‘Can we summarise ….’
  • If the individual agrees your formulation is correct, it shows you have been listening with understanding.  This is reassuring.  It will make them feel that they can trust you, that your support and interest are genuine and that they can move on with confidence.
  • If the individual does not agree with your statement, this may prompt you to clarify the point.
  • “Tell me more about …..”
  • “Can you expand on …”
  • “How did you arrive at that …….”
  • “What are the risks / other options / benefits you can see to …….”
  • “How does this tie in with what you said earlier about x, y and z?”
  • “What’s the worst / best that could happen?”
  • “If you were arguing from the opposite point of view, what you would say?” (Devil’s Advocate) or “seeing it from the other person’s perspective – how do you think they would feel?”
  • “I’m not quite clear about how that will work. Could you tell me more about it?”
  • “Could you just clarify and go back over x?”
  • “If you were going to re-run x, y or z, what could you have done differently?”
  • “Can you see any conflicts between x and y?”
  • “Why do you think that ….?”
  • “If you had 10 minutes right now with ….., what would be the key message(s) you would want to get across?”
  • “How could you refine point x …. into a clear statement?”
  • Be positive and energetic in your approach.
  • Be optimistic about next steps and the points agreed.
  • Encourage the individual to identify those things that could get in the way and talk through the practical things that can help
  • Express confidence in their ability to deal with the situation.
  • Encourage them to step back and to look at things in a balanced fashion.
  • Remind them of the benefits of dealing with the issue.
  • Use ‘yes, and …..’ (supporting and linking to another idea) at least as much as ‘yes, but ….’ (agreeing but pointing out difficulties).
  • Provide practical suggestions, where you can, on other things they should consider and / or action.

In other words, be the bridge to MOTIVATION and ACTION.

Resolving Problems/Issues – The Supporter Way

Supporter conversations are primarily about generating ownership, understanding and gaining commitment to action and not simply about ‘fixing’ the immediate issue  They are about helping someone to learn so they can tackle this for themselves next time around – “The fishing rod, not the fish” way of thinking.

Resolving Problems Issues – The Supporter Way

The way this works in practice is as follows:

  1. Start with formulating the problem:
  • What is happening / not happening?
  • What does it look like?  What do you observe?
  • What is the impact?
  • What outcome is needed?  What would success look like?
  1. Resist the temptation to drive straight to a conclusion and go for a solution! Instead, probe / drive the conversation around uncovering the cause:
  • What is happening and why?
  • Tell me more about . . . .
  • Who else is involved?
  • What have you done to date?
  • What has worked / not worked?
  • What do you assess can be done?
  • What evidence do you have?
  • Where does this come from?
  • Can you think of a parallel to this, something you have experienced?  How did you solve it?

Clearly, tailor your questions and approach to the situation and the individual you are with but the whole idea is to get them thinking and encourage them to solve the issue.  Naturally you will adopt a different style depending on the context / style of each conversation and precisely what it is that your friend wants to work on.

The sequence of 3, 4 and 5 falls into place as you have already created the conversation along lines that make it possible for you to input, but they are driving the agenda.  Judgement therefore is required as to how much input etc but the knack is to ask great questions and to get the person you are working with to create their own solution so you can review and help them to think through the pros and cons.

The key here is to take your cue from the person you are working with and remember the golden rule – Ask not Tell!

Summarising the topic

Supporter Summary

Supporting is fundamentally about helping your friend to solve things for themselves.

Typically the Supporter role is to:

  • Unlock ability
  • Encourage learning
  • Enhance personal accountability and ownership
  • Provide perspective and balance
  • Act as an independent sounding board

The Supporting process itself is about:

  • Helping to remove potential obstacles
  • Providing encouragement
  • Giving feedback
  • Being supportive and challenging (appropriately) in given situations


  • This clearly lies with the individual for the quality / level of what they need to achieve
  • Your role is that of facilitator / supporter
  • The action plan that results must be owned by the individual. The nature and scope of your input will vary according to the experience of the individual.  This really is one of those scenarios where less is more!

Contracting / Boundaries

  • Always establish the purpose, needs and outcomes of all conversations as early as possible as this will set the framework for everything else that follows.
  • If information is going to be shared with anyone, agree the rules of confidentiality.

Roles and Responsibilities

  • Establish a Supporter plan and make sure that this is realistic for you both.

Logistics / Access / Timetable

  • Agree how things are going to be done as sequencing, logistics and choreography can be very important to obtaining the best result.

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Chris Dunn
TDA Transitions & Learning Organisation Ltd

Chris Dunn of The TDA Transitions & Learning Organisation Ltd has been advising senior business people on career transition matters for over 30 years.  He has a particular interest in releasing enterprise potential and he coaches, facilitates, consults and teaches in this sphere.

His original Entrepreneur Development Programme enabled 1,700+ executives to make the transition from corporate life into being their own boss.  Chris later applied his enterprise understanding in the franchise sector and worked with some of the biggest brands such as BP Connect, Boots Opticians, Pizza Hut, Costa Coffee and Snap-on Tools.

Chris manages this section of the Working Free website, pointing to what you need to know and where you can get it from.  He has a number of published works to his credit including Who Are Your Best People? (Kotze and Dunn – FT/Prentice Hall) and Starting a Business on a Shoestring (Penguin).  He is also the designer of a range of self-help training and development kits including Making Redundancy Work for You, Self-Marketing: A Guide to Creative Job Search and Business Success through People, a training analysis kit for small businesses.

To accompany his work in this section, Chris can make available chapters from Starting a Business on a Shoestring. He can also provide access to BASIS (Business Attitude Style Information System). This is an enterprise profile which provides insights into behaviour strengths and possible barriers to success for those wishing to set up their own business.  Further details are contained in Additional Resources at the end of this section.

Chris can be contacted at [email protected]www.tdatransitions.co.uk

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