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How to Help a Friend

Avoid words that cause unintentional pain to provide better support.

Anh Nguyen/Unsplash
Source: Anh Nguyen/Unsplash

Yesterday I Zoomed into a happy hour with a friend. She talked about her sadness that her sons, both in pivotal years in school, would miss the traditional year-end celebrations. And she’s worried about whether her business, built around a community with services delivered to clients onsite, will rebound.

As I listened to her talk, I wanted to offer comfort. To lower her stress, provide support and encouragement — you know, do the things that friends do to ease the pain.

I thought about saying something like, “I know. This is hard, but we’ll get through it. It’s going to be OK.”

But, that kind of vague comment would have been a terrible thing to say, according to research from Penn State University.

Messages That Help or Hurt

Some messages, even when intended as support, wind up leaving friends and loved ones feeling angrier, stressed, and hurt, according to researchers, while other phrases provide comfort, encouragement, care.

Language that conveys control — like strong-arming our way through a pandemic, or a statement that whitewashes the situation without facts of justification, such as, “it’s all going to be OK,” are described as low-person centered approaches. These cause unintended pain and may even amplify the stress of the person you are trying to help, according to, says Xi Tian, the graduate assistant who conducted the study, published in the Journal of Communication.

In other words, my initial desire to help by saying something vague like “you'll be fine," or "it will all work out" would have only piled on the pain.

But high-person centered messages — statements that recognize the individual and her unique feelings — rather than those that challenge, criticize, judge, or downplay the feelings can leave the people you care about feeling better, more supported.

Saying something like “This is a hard experience, I understand why you would be worried about your business,” can provide more comfort.

Vague statements that downplay the struggle without taking into account the facts could be why some people are resistant to help or react angrily to your support, says Penn State researcher Denise Solomon.

I’ve muddled this up myself. In my desire to support those I care about, I’ve sometimes gone off the cliff of vague, general, over-simplified, pep-talk platitudes like, “Look for the silver lining” or “Everything always works out.”

Whelp. Nope. Not everything does. Some things suck and hurt and don’t go the way we want. Instead of making that kind of low-person comment, a higher form — using words of sympathy and concern — allows you to validate the other and then leaves room for them to express and better understand their own thoughts. It could sound something like this: "Understandably you feel stressed. This is hard and important to you. What's your biggest concern?"

This approach is validating and that feels a whole lot more supportive, according to the research.

So when it comes to comforting others during this time — or any time — I'm going to lean into sympathy and compassion by using phrases like "It’s understandable, it's such an uncertain time and you've worked so hard," instead of "Yeah, it's hard for everyone. We just have to keep going."

And hopefully, I'll convey the kind of care and support I intend, rather than adding to the upset.