As someone who researches and teaches what makes emotional support effective, hands down the number one question people ask me is, "What do I say?" There are so many moments, large and small, when someone we love is in pain or upset and our natural desire is to help. Yet, for many of us, when someone comes to us, we pause, wondering how to best respond. Or, we go to what we know best—we offer advice. Unfortunately, advice as a go-to strategy for when a loved one is upset usually backfires. Research shows that while most people offer advice, men and women both overwhelmingly want emotional support. And although there isn't one "right" message you can employ when someone is upset, there are behaviors you can use that will make your attempts much more successful. I'll start by briefly explaining why advice tends to backfire, for those of you who still believe solving the problem is the best strategy for ending their pain. Then, I'll outline a template for what you should do instead and some behaviors you should avoid.
Why Does Advice Backfire?
It happens all the time—your friend or romantic partner comes to you with an issue. They are upset and begin to explain the offending situation. As you listen, it is overwhelmingly clear what the problem is and how it could be fixed. So when they finish their story, you launch into some solutions. Your intentions are pure (hopefully), but your partner doesn't seem responsive—they may even say something like, "You don't get it!" What just happened?
Research has consistently shown that problem solving or giving advice when someone is upset is rarely well-received. The first reason is likely that the upset individual just wants to vent or express their feelings; they may not even want a solution. Worse than that, when we give people poorly timed advice, it implies that they can't solve their problems themselves. Unwanted advice has been linked to hurt feelings, negative relationship outcomes, reduce self-esteem, and dissatisfaction with support in general. And most advice is unwanted—unless someone says, "What do you think I should do?" or something similar, they don't want you to solve their problem.
Given that, we need to adapt our go-to strategy. If you can train yourself to turn to emotional support or comforting first, your conversations and relationships will both be improved. Here's how.
Strategies for Providing Effective Emotional Support
We need to keep in mind that providing a "template for effective emotional support" is a bit misleading. The hallmark of effective support (of any type) is that it is adapted to the person receiving the support, the relationship between support provider and receiver, the stressor, and many other factors. A more severe problem requires a more severe response, whereas an everyday annoyance shouldn't be met with grandiose attempts at support. Keeping in mind that support attempts need to be adaptive (and sometimes need to adapt throughout a conversation), there are some strategies that can be employed to make support more effective.
When a loved one comes to you for support, the number one best thing you can do is to clearly validate their feelings. Validation is an acknowledgment and recognition of another person's thoughts, feelings, and perspectives. It doesn't mean that we have to agree, but if we care about the other person, we do need to explicitly accept how they see the situation and their reaction to it (for more information on why explicitness is essential, see the post "Stress and Providing Support: Why Do We Care").
Why does explicit validation work? It is the simplest way to convey the most important messages of emotional support—I see you, I understand, I care about you, and I'm here for you. When people are stressed, their abilities to think rationally and engage in problem-solving are reduced. What they really need is to feel heard and understood. When negative emotions and stress are validated, it begins the recovery cycle where people begin to relax a little.
What does explicit validation look like? It may be as simple as looking someone in the eye and saying, "I understand how upsetting that would be." Other examples may be:
- "I can see that you're very (angry, upset, sad, etc)."
- "What a frustrating situation."
- "It must feel (_____) to have someone do/say that to you."
- "Wow, that must be really hard."
- "I can see how much this affects you." or "I can see how hard you are working on this."
Validation can also take the form of active listening and showing interest, such as:
- "What I hear you say is _____." or "Is it true that when this happened, you felt ____?"
- "Tell me more."
- "It seems like this makes you (question yourself, feel unfairly bad about your performance, etc); would you say that's true."
- "I understand how you would feel this way. What about the situation do you think is most upsetting/frustrating/etc.?"
While the things we say when someone is upset are important, our nonverbal communication is also important. Communication scholars have focused on a set of behaviors that reinforce the verbal support message and enhance the effectiveness of messages, called immediacy. Immediacy behaviors include anything that makes people feel cared for and shows that the person providing support is involved, concerned, and sincere.
When you are trying to comfort a loved one, think about adding in some of these behaviors:
- Eye contact: The number one way to show responsiveness and caring is to look at the person who is talking. Put down your cell phone or move away from whatever you were originally doing.
- Body orientation toward the individual: Shifting your body so you are facing the other person and sometimes even moving closer to them as you realize the conversation is becoming more serious.
- Active listening behaviors: These include nodding, verbal acknowledgments of following the conversation such as "ahuh," "yep," "I see," etc., and asking questions that are in line with the topic of the conversation.
- Physical touch: When appropriate, caressing an arm or leg, holding hands, hugging, or kissing can reinforce that you care and want to help.
Listen to Your Partner and Give Them What They Want
Listening is an essential part of providing support and a skill most people have not mastered. Don't become a conversational narcissist and make the conversation all about you. Your role as a support provider is to listen and ask questions so the upset person can talk through their feelings. Research shows that by talking about our feelings, we are able to organize and make sense of them in a way that reduces stress and improves emotions. When you're listening, focus on listening to understand, not to respond (yes, there is a huge difference).
As your partner talks, listen for cues as to what they most want. Remember that people talk to others for a reason. If you listen closely, you can pick out that reason and respond accordingly. When your loved one starts telling a story about something upsetting that happened, most likely, they just want you to listen so they can get the negative emotions out.
The rule for support is, don't give advice unless it is asked for. You may be saying right now, "But, what if I know how to fix it?" My response would be, resist the urge! Your job isn't to fix it ... unless they ask for your help. Listen for cues that advice is wanted—statements like, "What do you think?" or "What would you do in this situation?" When people want advice, they make it clear. Otherwise, validate, ask questions, and listen attentively. Chances are, once you've followed the template discussed here, your friend or loved one will eventually ask for advice if the problem is one that can be solved. And if you are really eager to provide advice when it isn't asked for, try the following strategy: ask if your partner is open to feedback or suggestions. You might say something like, "I think I have something that might help, are you open to hearing about it?" Just keep in mind that if they say "no," you have to be willing to honor that. Believe me, it will be better for your relationship in the short and long term!
Behaviors to Avoid
I would be remiss if I didn't end the strategies for providing effective support with some things to avoid. Some of them are clear from what you've already read—anything that is the opposite of what is outlined above is something to avoid. There are, however, a few major behaviors to avoid that are very detrimental to providing effective support. These include:
- Telling people how to feel or act. Statements such as, "Don't do that—do this" will clearly make people feel inferior and decrease self-esteem and self-efficacy.
- Downplaying the significance of the other person's feelings. Saying things like, "It's really not that big of a deal," or "I don't know why you're making such a big deal about this" will only make upset people feel like they need to defend their feelings and further entrench them in being upset and stressed. Even if you don't agree with how they are feeling, it doesn't mean you can't validate and support—remember validation isn't agreeing, it's recognizing and acknowledging.
- You should have known statements—this is my personal favorite that I receive from well-meaning loved ones. It usually sounds something like this, "I know this is hard, but you really should have seen this coming given everything that was happening."
Follow these simple strategies and your support attempts will improve. Remember that providing support is a skill—it is something that we need to practice and work on over time. If validating doesn't come naturally to you, make a list of validating statement options that you can pull from. Even if your new "go-to" becomes, "That sucks! Tell me more," you're already starting off on the right foot.