The Best Way to Comfort Someone When They’re Sad

When a friend, partner, family member or co-worker is upset, you’ve probably wondered how best to make them feel better. Let them vent? Offer a chocolate bar? Give them space so they can have a good cry? The ideal approach depends on the person and the context, experts say. But a limited yet growing body of research suggests that one of the most powerful ways to soothe a person’s feelings is to start a conversation.

Words play a powerful role in shaping people’s emotions because humans are such a social species. But the words we use to comfort others matter, as some forms of verbal support have been found to be more helpful than others.

Here’s a research-based guide for supporting friends, colleagues and loved ones in times of need.

Validate their emotions.

One consistent finding from the research is that telling people they shouldn’t feel so bad typically makes them feel worse. In a landmark study published in 2012, researchers listened in on 228 phone calls between angry customers and customer service representatives who handled medical-related billing questions and complaints. When the representatives told the upset customers to “calm down” or “relax,” the customers typically became angrier.

These kinds of strategies backfire because they imply that the person’s feelings “might be inappropriate, or that their emotion might be more intense than the situation calls for,” Razia Sahi, a doctoral candidate in psychology at the University of California, Los Angeles, explained. It inadvertently sends the message that they’re overreacting, which, paradoxically, only makes them more emotional.

“When people hear you and they say they understand you, you feel trusted, you feel cared for, you feel connected,” Ms. Sahi said, “and feeling connected to other people is extremely, extremely important for us.”

Help them strategize (if they’re open to it).

If they’re open to it, talking through how to overcome a particular hurdle or repair a conflict may give an upset friend or colleague a sense of control over their situation, Dr. Karen Niven, a professor of organizational psychology at the Sheffield University Management School in Britain, said. This can help ease their emotions and even potentially resolve the issue entirely.

Researchers have found that people give cues as to what they want based on the words they use. If they focus on their emotions by saying something like, “I feel like they don’t care about me,” they are probably only looking for validation. If, on the other hand, they say that they wish they felt differently, or that they want to know how to solve a problem, then they are “inviting you to help them,” Ms. Sahi explained.

If they welcome problem solving, frame it carefully.

Tell them that you understand why they feel the way they do, or that you would have reacted similarly. Studies have found that people are more receptive to advice after they have been made to feel emotionally supported than if they haven’t received any validation at all.

Then, ease into a problem-solving strategy.

Remember that it’s the thought that counts.

Although it can be hard to know how best to help someone, Dr. Zaki emphasized that we should be confident that our attempts will be appreciated — even if we don’t know what we’re doing.

In a small study published in 2022, researchers found that people typically underestimated how useful their attempts to help others would be, perhaps because they feared that their advice wasn’t perfect. Researchers found that people appreciated support even if it wasn’t exactly aligned with their needs.

Excerpted from “The Best Way to Comfort Someone When They’re Sad” in The New York Times. Read the full article online for more details.

Source: The New York Times | The Best Way to Comfort Someone When They’re Sad, | © 2023 The New York Times Company
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