Knowing what to say when a friend is upset or stressed out can be a delicate balancing act. Sometimes the best route seems to be to offer advice and give practical suggestions as to how they should proceed; at other times, simply listening to what your friend has to say is by far the better option. But no matter your approach, ensuring that your friend feels validated is key, argue Xi Tian and colleagues in a new study published in the Journal of Communication.
The study starts with a question many of us have pondered ourselves: why do some well-intentioned attempts at comfort come off as insensitive instead?
To explore the question, the team asked 325 married adults to think of one person with whom they’d discussed their partner or marriage, and to imagine having a conversation with them about a recent argument they’d had with their spouse. They were then presented with one of six support messages, each of which was more or less person-centred — in other words, more or less willing to acknowledge and elaborate on the feelings of the upset person. Low person-centred messages focused on simply moving past the argument (e.g. “nobody is worth getting so worked up about… having an argument is not the worst thing that could happen to you”), whilst high person-centred messages were more engaged and acknowledged the individuals’ feelings (e.g. “you have every right to feel upset… it’s understandable you are stressed out”).
Participants then rated the support messages on a number of measures, including how controlling and dominant, direct and clear, or logical and well-justified the messages were. They also reported whether they felt pressured by their friend, and indicated the extent to which they experienced psychological “reactance”: that is, how angry they were after reading the message, and how critical they felt of it. Finally, they rated how optimistic they would feel after receiving the message and how much their emotions would improve.
As expected, low person-centred messages were not successful in helping people feel better about disputes with their partner, nor did they reduce emotional distress. These types of messages angered participants, and were also seen as domineering and lacked argument strength — in other words, they were neither convincing nor comforting.
In contrast, high person-centred messages were associated with higher levels of emotional improvement, which the team puts down partly to the fact participants felt little or no threat to their freedom when responding to these messages (i.e. they didn’t feel pressured or controlled by their friend). There was also less emotional reactance to high person-centred messages — participants felt less angry, less critical and less likely to argue with their friend.
There are some limitations to the study: the messages participants received were, of course, fake, so the way they would feel about them in the context of a real conversation with a friend may differ from the artificial environment of the study. Future studies may also take into consideration the diversity of relationships and their social contexts — as the team notes, the majority of participants were in heterosexual relationships, in their first marriages and white.
There will, of course, be times when you believe a friend really is overreacting — that they’re making a big deal over nothing. At times like these, the results of this study may be useful to keep in mind. If you want to make them feel comforted, acknowledging, not dismissing, what they’re feeling is the way to go.