Before Trying to Comfort Someone, Understand Their “plight”

When someone we know – or even a stranger we meet at the grocery store or on the bus – is clearly in distress, our first reaction is often to try to comfort that person. Whether it’s words or offers of help, we don’t want anyone to go through difficult times. Plus, people who are sad and upset make us feel uncomfortable, so you may also be inclined to reach out to make you feel like you were at least trying to do something (which is not something that you are likely to understand or consider in a moment; your desire to help usually does not come from a bad place).

It turns out that how a person responds to your offers of comfort or help will largely depend on their current state of distress. Therefore, in order to figure out how to meet the person where they are and to offer the comfort / help they are truly willing to receive, it’s a good idea to figure out what kind of distress they are. Here’s how to do it.

Four states of distress

In a recent article, “Clearer Thinking” (which we found through Recommendo ), Kat Woods and Spencer Greenberg identify four states of distress. Here is a summary of the conditions and what they can tell us about how best to comfort someone.

Shocked or confused

General emotions : shock, confusion, surprise, fear, horror, denial.

Potentially helpful strategies for consoling them:

  • Active listening
  • Helps resolve confusion
  • Expression of concern
  • Confirming their confusion
  • Reflecting to them their understanding of what they said

Feels bad and is not ready to feel better

General emotions : strong forms of sadness, depression, anxiety, anger, contempt, guilt, jealousy.

Potentially useful strategies:

  • Active listening
  • Sympathy
  • Confirming your emotions
  • Reflecting to them their understanding of what they said
  • Help them develop a mindset that makes them feel better about themselves.

Feeling bad, but wanting to feel better

General Emotions: Strong or moderate forms of sadness, depression, anxiety, anger, contempt, guilt, jealousy [Although this is basically the same as State 2, the difference is that the person is willing to help.]

Potentially useful strategies:

  • Physical comfort (such as a hug)
  • Confirming your emotions
  • Distraction (such as a fun activity)
  • Helping them explore and understand their feelings
  • Problem solving (especially if there is a way to quickly solve most of the problem)
  • Note . Woods and Greenberg also include “optimism and rethinking (for example, looking at it in a less negative light or seeking goodwill),” but if the person doesn’t make it very clear that they want to find a better side, you might be better off skipping it. You definitely do not want to turn into the territory of bright attractions .

Feel better and seek solutions

General emotions : more manageable or minor forms of sadness, depression, anxiety, anger, contempt, guilt, or jealousy.

Potentially useful strategies:

  • Brainstorming solutions
  • Problem solving
  • Advice
  • Take your time to help find a solution
  • Providing resources to solve the problem

These are just the basics – if you’re interested in learning more, take a look at Woods and Greenberg’s full article (it’s short but contains useful information and examples of each condition). It’s also good to keep in mind that people can also have their own “comfort languages” in which they respond best to a certain type of comfort. Woodsexplains the concept in this short video .

The bottom line is that even if you have the best intentions, when you offer someone comfort and / or help that they are not yet ready to accept, you can actually make the situation worse. If you find yourself in this position, just think of it this way: by not forcing someone to find a middle ground or to move on when they are not ready, you are still really helping them.


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