New research finds there is no “right thing” to say when you want to be supportive

GettyImages-121353307.jpgBy 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.

A new study backed this up. The researchers asked 54 undergrads to rate the supportiveness of 96 statements across eight hypothetical situations, deliberately composed to appeal to people with certain personality traits – for example, there were positive-thinking type statements designed to appeal to optimists (e.g. “things have a funny way of working out for the best”) and community-minded statements designed to appeal to people with a sociable, collegiate disposition (e.g. “Well, your friends like you better anyway and now you can spend more time with us”). Once again, there was very little agreement between the students in which statements were considered the more supportive, and this was the case even when restricting the analysis to sub-groups of the students with similar personality traits. Instead, more relevant were participants’ own idiosyncrasies – how they happened to like some supportive statements but not others.

Finally, in an effort to increase the realism of their investigation, the researchers asked 33 clinical psychologists, undergrad and graduate clinical trainees to rate the supportiveness of statements made by therapists in therapy training videos. Once more there was little agreement about which statements were the more supportive, even among the sub-groups (for instance, among the qualified clinical psychologists specifically).

The background to these new findings is that past research has shown there is also little agreement between people about the trait supportiveness, or not, of other individuals. Tanner’s team reasoned that this subjectivity need not necessarily apply to supportive utterances, but it seems it does. There is not something about certain people, nor certain carefully chosen words, that makes them universally comforting. Rather – and likely for highly complex reasons – we each have an idiosyncratic take on who is supportive and which words we find most helpful. While further research is needed to confirm this take – including studies in more realistic situations and involving people from varied cultures – for now this message should bring reassurance to anyone who has worried about saying the right thing to a friend or relative in need.

What is the Right Thing to Say? Agreement among Perceivers on the Supportiveness of Statements

Christian Jarrett (@Psych_Writer) is Editor of BPS Research Digest

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