New Research Finds There Is No “Right Thing” To Say When You Want To Be Supportive

By Christine 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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18 comments

  1. As I read your book, how then should I respond? I’m saddened, sickened and shocked. As I struggle to continue, I try to remember the light in your dark room- the smell of the roses. And I remember the shiny shells and the wave sounds blanking out your abuse. Your resolve came from a heavenly imagination and innocence. Respect to you and thanks for those saviours!

    • HI Polly thanks so much for reading the book. It’s not light reading and you’ve summed it up very well. Please review it honestly and truthfully as you wish. If you could leave a review on Amazon that would be great. Is you book on Amazon and I will do the same for you leaving out that I didn’t finish it. I read some more of it yesterday and was encouraged that there is light at the end of the tunnel. It is such a cautionary tale. How did the inspiration come to you? Is it based on any personal experience. You write so well. All the best Erin

      • For many years I supported children in schools. That pastoral responsibility and helping in other support settings, offered
        me inspiration to speak out about their exploitation from predatory adults. I linked up with Hope for Justice who free many young people from abusive situations, too.
        I am reading…

      • That’s awesome work you did Polly. I am sure you helped many young people. Congratulations. Erin

      • And my parents were very young, there was some neglect but nothing like your story…
        I have given lots of books away to front-line charities.
        So, I have continued reading but was hijacked by the child murders that I found most distressing. A warning before chapter 8 could help other readers be more prepared?

        Manning up, I read until chapter 11. I will soon continue as my nightmares decrease. Sorry to be a wimp. Is there any more to brace myself for?
        As you can imagine, I’m so looking forward to hearing of your salvation and road to recovery.

        Regards, Polly

      • Erin,

        Indeed you are bearing witness.
        You were right to be scared but our Lord has a mighty army to protect us. Each day we must ‘put on our full armor of God’ as in Ephesians 6:10-18
        You are fair to the Irish folk and forgiving to many beyong my fathoming. Just to say that after reading, please try to avoid the belief that you were to blame for all that happened and deserve to die. I believe that Aisling and all the innocents are in a safe place- heavenwards bound. Especially, you cannot be held responsible for the losses and abuse, in my opinion.
        You were a child surviving a nightmare that went on for years. Thanking God for your resilience and voice. Praying that you receive healing to love yourself as Jesus does- without stain.
        My review will be up on Amazon after much careful thought. Understand that it does not depend upon you reviewing my book. You have already read what you were able. I can see that the triggers there are avoidable. Feel free to pass my book on.
        Your family sound awesome.
        Please keep well!

      • I’m happy that you found wonderful help and trust and are rebuilding a person able to live with the memories but that you acknowledge you comforted the lost children and did the best you could. That’s all we can do. Our best.
        Well done for your compelling writing. It must have been excruitiating to do at times but hope that it brings peace. Trusting that professional therapy, and art therapy of many kinds, continue to bring healing and that your loving family life raft stays bouyant.
        Your comment- “each day achieved is a battle won and is to be celebrated” is a fabulous mantra. “a joy to be lionised” is inspirational. You have such talent connecting to a needy audience.
        May your book signpost others to accept the incredible work of healing in their lives.

      • Hi Polly

        Thanks for your kind words of encouragement. Much appreciated. I have passed your book on. My daughter has read it and found it very moving. I have given it to my psychotherapist now to read so will be interesting to see what she has to say. I will let you know.
        All the best Erin.

      • My review is up on Goodreads. Amazon is causing more of a headache but I’ll get there eventually… Apparently, I need to spend more money with Amazon before I can review! So give my family a chance to help me out by putting their orders in!
        I’ll let you know when I post.

      • Thanks so much Polly. I have the same problem with Amazon. All the best Erin

      • HI Polly, thanks so much. Really appreciate your very well written review. Hope to reciprocate as soon as Amazon lets me. All the best Erin.

I would love to hear from you so please leave a comment. All feedback is much appreciated. Thank you. Erin

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