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2 Ways to Overcome the Awkwardness of Offering Condolences

Psychologists explain why support should come from the heart, not the head.

Carrie Beth Williams / Unsplash
Source: Carrie Beth Williams / Unsplash

A new study published in Psychological Science urges us not to think twice about offering support or condolences to a friend or acquaintance in need. The study suggests that we have a tendency to underestimate how positively recipients respond to our expressions of support.

Psychologist James Dungan recounts the story of his co-author who wanted to offer his condolences to a friend who had lost his father. He faced the same questions that all of us face in similar situations:

  • Am I doing this to extend genuine support or to fulfill a societal obligation to make myself feel better?
  • Does one more person offering condolences mean anything?
  • Would the condolences benefit him in any way?
  • Does he even want to be consoled?

After offering his condolences anyway and receiving a positive reaction from his friend, Dungan and co-author David Munguia Gomez decided to undertake research on this very topic.

To do so, the researchers collected online responses from people imagining giving support, asked people to send real messages of support to someone they knew, and even had people express face-to-face support to complete strangers in a controlled, laboratory setting.

According to Dungan, the diversity of experimental contexts allowed the researchers to capture feelings of giving and receiving support in a wide range of situations and relationships. “The recipients consistently responded more positively to people’s expressions of support than people initially expected,” he explains.

Why, then, do we often feel reluctant when it comes to extending support? Dungan offers the following possible explanations:

  • We feel like it is not our place or someone else might be better positioned to provide support.
  • We feel confused as to what is the best way to express and provide support, especially in cases where there are multiple options to choose from.
  • We may not be in a stable enough position emotionally, physically, or financially to support someone else.
  • We feel like our support may not be useful or that we are not competent enough to provide the support someone might need.

For anyone who feels resistance when it comes to being forthcoming with support for someone in need, Dungan has the following advice:

  1. Try to focus on the genuine warmth and concern that you would like to convey by offering support to someone rather than agonizing about exactly what to say. Viewing expressions of support as being primarily about empathy and connection feels less overwhelming than finding a solution to their problem or getting your message just right. Agonizing over what exactly to do or say may be a mistake to the extent that it stops you from reaching out in the first place and expressing that you care.
  2. Try to recognize just how many opportunities you have to help people in your life whether they are friends, co-workers, or even total strangers. The study found that recipients actually felt similarly positive about receiving support regardless of whether it was a friend or a more distant acquaintance who had reached out to them.

“Our work suggests that finding the perfect words may be less important than reaching out in the first place to express that you care,” concludes Dungan.

References

Dungan, James (Interview). Why do we hesitate before extending a helping hand. Therapytips.org, July 19, 2022.

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