What Communication Scientists Know About Effective Messages
Using effective communication to comfort others and have difficult conversations
Posted Jan 29, 2018
Communication scholars know a lot about what makes certain messages more effective than others. They've been chipping away at the answer to this very question for decades. Below I highlight what I consider the top three ways to improve what we say to others when they are stressed, upset, and otherwise in need of comfort and encouragement.
1. People like to hear person-centered messages that legitimize what they are feeling and help them explore their emotions.
High person-centered messages are also tailored to the individual. For example, if I want to encourage my sister after she has had a rough week, I might tell her that I know she can get through it, because she is the most resourceful person I know. The trick here is that the compliment must be true. (My sister really is the most resourceful person I know.)
2. People like to be both accepted (validated) and challenged (pushed gently) by others.
If we need to talk with someone about their behavior, to perhaps suggest they make a change or get help from a third party, it is helpful to use acceptance and challenge. Acceptance reassures someone that they are a worthwhile person we care about. Messages high in acceptance are also warm and caring. The same message can be high in challenges if we combine the warmth and validation with a gentle push to ask the person to examine their behavior and think about what they might do better or differently in the future.
3. People do not like to face threatening messages, or messages that imply they are disliked or disrespected, or that constrain their ability to do what they want with their time.
Instead, we should focus on giving people autonomy, or letting them know that the decision is ultimately theirs. This is especially important when giving others advice. We might want to encourage our partner to take time off work, relax, and de-stress, but demanding that he or she does this could backfire. Instead, we might provide our partner with options to either take time off or cancel an existing weekend plan. That way, the ball is in their court, and they ultimately get to decide what to do.
Some people are better at doing all of this at once than others. Cognitive complexity is a characteristic that sets apart communicators who can produce messages that are highly person-centered, accepting, and challenging, without being threatening. It turns out that keeping all of these things in mind while holding a conversation can be really hard. Because of this, people also need to be motivated to produce these highly caring, person-centered messages. This is why we are more likely to create these kinds of messages for people we really care about and are close to, and less likely to do so for strangers.
To learn more about each of these strategies for producing effective messages, see the references listed below.
Brown, P., & Levinson, S. C. (1987). Politeness: Some universals in language usage (Vol. 4). Cambridge university press.
Burleson, B. R. (1982). The development of comforting communication skills in childhood and adolescence. Child Development, 1578-1588.
Dailey, R. M. (2010). Testing components of confirmation: How acceptance and challenge from mothers, fathers, and siblings are related to adolescent self-concept. Communication Monographs, 77(4), 592-617.
High, A. C., & Dillard, J. P. (2012). A review and meta-analysis of person-centered messages and social support outcomes. Communication Studies, 63(1), 99-118.