The best way to support stressed out friends and family

April 5, 2020

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The best way to support stressed out friends and family

In uncertain times, supporting your friends and family can help them make it through. But your comforting words can have different effects based on how you phrase them, according to new research.


The researchers studied how people responded to a variety of different messages offering emotional support. They found that messages that validated a person’s feelings were more effective and helpful than ones that were critical or diminished emotions.


The findings were recently published in the Journal of Communication. The researchers said the results could help people provide better support to their friends and families.


What the researchers say: “One recommendation is for people to avoid using language that conveys control or uses arguments without sound justification,” said the lead author. “For example, instead of telling a distressed person how to feel, like ‘don’t take it so hard’ or ‘don’t think about it,’ you could encourage them to talk about their thoughts or feelings so that person can come to their own conclusions about how to change their feelings or behaviors.”


He said that previous research has shown that social support can help alleviate emotional distress, increase physical and psychological well-being, and improve personal relationships. But—depending on how support is phrased or worded—it could be counterproductive, actually increasing stress or reducing a person’s confidence that they can manage their stressful situation.


The researchers said they were trying to learn more about why well-intentioned attempts to comfort others are sometimes seen as insensitive or unhelpful.


“We wanted to examine the underlying mechanism that explains why some supportive messages may produce unintended consequences,” they said. “We also wanted to understand how people cognitively and emotionally respond to insensitive social support.”


For the study, the researchers recruited 478 married adults who had recently experienced an argument with their spouse. Before completing an online questionnaire, participants were asked to think about someone with whom they had previously discussed their marriage or spouse. Then, they were presented with one of six possible supportive messages and were asked to imagine that person giving them that message.


Lastly, the participants were asked to rate their given message on a variety of characteristics.


“We manipulated the messages based on how well the support message validates, recognizes, or acknowledges the support recipients’ emotions, feelings, and experiences,” the lead author said. “Essentially, the messages were manipulated to exhibit low, moderate, or high levels of person-centeredness, and we created two messages for each level of person-centeredness.”


According to the researchers, a highly person-centered message recognizes the other person’s feelings and helps the person explore why they might be feeling that way. For example, “Disagreeing with someone you care about is always hard. It makes sense that you would be upset about this.” Meanwhile, a low person-centered message is critical and challenges the person’s feelings. For example, “Nobody is worth getting so worked up about. Stop being so depressed.”


After analyzing the data, the researchers found that low person-centered support messages did not help people manage their marital disagreement in a way that reduced emotional distress.


“In fact, those messages were perceived as dominating and lacking argument strength,” the lead author said. “Those messages induced more resistance to social support, and the participants reported feeling angry after receiving the message. They also reported actually criticizing the message while reading it.”


In contrast, high person-centered messages produced more emotional improvement and circumvented reactance to social support.


“Another recommendation that can be taken from this research is that people may want to use moderately to highly person-centered messages when helping others cope with everyday stressors,” said the researchers.


So, what? Too often we try and console people by using language that is more about us than them. A phrase like “I understand your situation,” is useless, no matter how well-intentioned. Or, worse still, “I know how you must feel.”


The person in an anxious, stressed or depressed state is not concerned with what you understand or know. They are much more self-focused. It’s their problem, not yours. “Talk to me about it,” is both practical and offers a path to understanding—both on your part and theirs. Avoid telling people in distress what to feel, what to think or what to do.


Much better to ask open ended questions, listen mindfully—concentrating on the words they are using—and encourage them to come to their own resolution. Be the facilitator of that, not their guide.


My father died when I was 14 and I recall so many people tried to give me advice—to steer my life, I felt. I heard lots of phrases like “I remember when my father died...” I felt angry, I didn’t care how they felt when their father died. There was no healing for me there.


Finally, a few days later Neville, a classmate of mine sat with me on a rock overlooking the harbor. He allowed me to be silent for a long time as we both looked at the boats. Finally, he said “Tell me what you’re feeling.” I did. All the complicated emotions—the grief, the anger, the sense of loss, the fear, the irrational sense of betrayal—flowed while he just listened. That was the beginning of healing. He went on to become a prominent pediatrician.

Dr Bob Murray

Bob Murray, MBA, PhD (Clinical Psychology), is an internationally recognised expert in strategy, leadership, influencing, human motivation and behavioural change.

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