If you’re trying to support someone and worried about saying the wrong thing don’t worry; there is no “right” or “wrong”!

If you’re trying to support someone and worried about saying the wrong thing don’t worry; there is no “right” or “wrong”!

By Christian Jarrett

It feels selfish to fret – it’s the other person who is suffering – but agonising over what to say to a friend in need can be incredibly anxiety provoking. If you want to be supportive (and not make matters worse), what are the right words to say to someone who has experienced a relationship break-up, for instance, or lost their job? Should you express sympathy, downplay the situation, say you know how they feel, or something else entirely? A series of studies in Basic and Applied Social Psychology will offer relief to anyone who has ever agonised over this predicament – the findings suggest that in fact there are few, if any, “magic statements that, if spoken, would provide lasting comfort to the recipient.”

Shawna Tanner at Wayne State University and her colleagues propose that in all likelihood trying too hard to say the right thing could actually lead you to make “clumsy statements that do more harm than good”. They advise that as long as your friend or relative sees you as supportive, then your “mere presence and sympathy is likely enough”.

Tanner’s team first re-analysed data published in 2008 that involved nearly 300 schoolchildren (aged 10 to 15) rating the supportiveness of six statements. These were ostensibly made by one friend to another, who had either had an academic set-back or been rejected from a group picnic. The six statements represented different supportive strategies such as offering sympathy, being optimistic or minimising the seriousness of the situation. There was barely any agreement between the children in their ratings of the supportiveness of the statements. A more important factor was the children’s own tendencies – some of them, more than others, were inclined to see the statements as generally more supportive. Comfort, then, is in the ears of the listener, not the words themselves…

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