How not to comfort someone. For how to do it, see the tips below.
With our archives now 3,500+ articles deep, we’ve decided to republish a classic piece each Sunday to help our newer readers discover some of the best, evergreen gems from the past. This article was originally published in May 2016.
Have you ever had someone come to you crying?
Maybe your wife had a brutal day at work and fell apart when she came through the door.
Or your mom lost it while reminiscing about your deceased dad.
Or your usually stoic buddy broke down about his girlfriend dumping him.
Interacting with someone who’s sad and hurting can be awkward; you want to be there for them, show your empathy, and strengthen your relationship, but it’s hard to know how to act and what to say. A lot of us end up sitting there uncomfortably, offering some awkward back pats, while saying, “There, there, it’s okay.”
I know a lot of guys out there struggle with this scenario, because I’ve gotten more requests to cover this topic than any other.
I held off on doing so, because while I thought I did a pretty good job in this area myself, I wanted to see if there was real research out there concerning best practices. Fortunately, I recently came across some great tips from Dr. John Gottman, a professor of psychology and arguably the foremost relationship expert in the country. Today I’ll share his advice, as well as the tips I’ve gleaned from personal experience, on how to comfort someone who’s sad, so you can help them in their time of need and be a better son, friend, and husband/boyfriend.
How to Comfort Someone Who’s Sad/Crying
“Witness” their feelings. One of the most difficult things about trying to comfort someone who’s hurting is feeling like you don’t know what to say. Fortunately, most of the time people aren’t actually looking for you to offer specific advice or pearls of wisdom; the most comforting thing in the world isn’t an inspiring platitude, but feeling like someone else gets what you’re going through, and that you’re not alone in the world. The thing people want most when they’re hurting is for you to act as a sounding board and to show understanding and empathy. Gottman calls this “witnessing” your loved one’s distress.
So to start off comforting someone, simply describe what you’re seeing/sensing. Say something like, “I know you’re having such a hard time with this,” or “I’m sorry you’re hurting so much.”
Also affirm that you hear what they’re saying by saying it back to them in your own words.
So if your wife, who’s in tears, says:
“My boss told me I wasn’t cut out for my job, and that if I make one more mistake he’s going to fire me.”
You would say back:
“It sounds like you’re upset because you haven’t been doing as well as you’d like at work, and you’re worried that you’re going to lose your job. Is that right?”
Affirm that their feelings make sense. You want to not only acknowledge that you hear the person’s feelings, but that they make sense to you. It’s lonely to feel like you’re coming at something from out of left field.
So you might say to your friend who’s going through a bad break-up: “Of course you’re devastated. I honestly was depressed for months after Emily and I ended things.”
Keep in mind that while sharing your similar experiences shows empathy, you want to be careful not to pivot the focus of the conversation onto you. Don’t try to one-up the person by sharing a story of how you’ve had it worse, and don’t go on and on about your own experience. Instead, briefly share how you’ve been through something similar, and then return the focus to the other person by asking them questions and eliciting more details (see the next point). Even if you haven’t experienced the same thing, you can still say, “That’s never happened to me, but I can really get why you’re feeling that way.”
If the person’s feelings don’t make sense to you, that makes the next step all the more important.
Show the person you understand their feelings, and facilitate the deepening of his or her own understanding of them. Sometimes people do want advice or a proposed solution to their problem, but even then, they usually first simply want to vent their feelings; as has often been observed, this is especially true of women. So hold off on going into problem-solving mode at first, and just listen. See