Helping Someone Feel Better

Someone you know feels bad and you want to help. I like that about you. You’ve probably already discovered that sometimes when you try to help, it doesn’t help, even though you have good intentions and try really hard. Making someone feel better isn’t always as easy or straightforward as you might expect. So you want to know: What really helps?

Luckily a researcher, Brant Burleson, has spent his lifetime looking into that question. When you try to help someone, you have only two choices: You can do a physical action that helps, or you can listen in a way that helps. These are your options for making someone feel better.

Burleson realized early on that for a physical action to really help someone, most of the time you first have to talk to the person and listen to find out what they need. So ultimately, in making someone feel better, you only need to focus on one thing: Listening well.

And after a lifetime of doing experiments himself and studying the experiments of other researchers, Burleson discovered six practical and effective insights into how to listen in a way that truly helps. If your intention is making someone feel better, the research says the following will consistently benefit the other person:

1. Make it clear up front that you really want to help. Oddly enough, many people miss this and their earnest attempts to help are interpreted as manipulation or worse. Why? Because when someone is in distress, the way they perceive the world is often distorted and they more easily misperceive your intentions. So make it plain as day that you want to help. This is the starting point of making someone feel better.

2. But by saying you want to help, you can almost immediately get into trouble because in their misery, they can interpret your desire to help as if you’re implying they are incompetent and can’t handle things on their own. So the second thing to make sure you do when listening to someone in distress is let the person know they are in control. They are in charge and you are their assistant in this matter. Make it clear you think of them as a competent, capable person — capable of thinking through their problem and capable of handling their situation. This is a key factor in making someone feel better.

Also do not — in any way — be critical of the person. Even the mildest criticism can be upsetting when someone already feels bad. Be very careful you refrain from even implying any disapproval or faultfinding. Making someone feel bad is counterproductive when making someone feel better.

3. Show intense interest and concern about her situation — the circumstances making her feel bad. Get the person to describe what happened in detail, but do this in a way that doesn’t sound like an interrogation. Do not try to hurry this process. In fact, try to slow it down. Try to prevent her from making a long story short. You want to know all about the situation and what led up to it, and what happened afterwards, and what the other person said, etc. Lots of detail is the key to making someone feel better.

Burleson found it helps a person who is feeling bad to have an opportunity to sort through his situation and his feelings about that situation — to have time to really think about it. That’s what really helps. When making someone feel better, that’s what to focus on. The reason good listening helps is because it gives the person exactly what he needs: The opportunity to think it all through.

4. Try your best to sincerely empathize. You may think, “How can you be so stupid as to get yourself in this mess?” You’ll have to find a way to get around your own judgment and really and truly empathize. Everyone has his own quirks and hang-ups and sometimes it gets him in trouble. Accept that about the person.

Just realize now he is in this mess, and try to sincerely understand his feelings and empathize with his plight.

And communicate your understanding carefully. Make sure you don’t say things like, “I know what you mean” or “I know how you feel.” You may not. Qualify your statements for accuracy. “I think I know what you mean” or “I can imagine how you must feel.” This seemingly minor point is a key factor in making someone feel better with your listening. It helps him trust you. It helps keep him from rejecting the things you say. It makes you more credible.

5. Make it clear you’re available to listen, no matter what the person says. Sometimes she will say things you want to argue with. Disagreeing will not help, no matter how obviously wrong she is. And sometimes — even with a clear intention of making someone feel better — you’ll want to tell a similar story. Restrain yourself. Encourage the person to talk, and keep your own input to a minimum, at least until she asks for your input, and maybe not even then.

But the point is, don't abandon the person. Make it clear you are with her and available to her for whatever she needs. Expressing this will really help someone in distress. It allows her to relax and speak freely. When she can speak freely, she will think more clearly.

6. Demonstrate you’re on the person's side — but not by criticizing anyone else. Burleson found that any kind of criticism you make — even to agree with the other person about someone else — doesn’t help. But do what you can to make it obvious that no matter what, you’re with the person who wants to feel better. You’re on his side.

Making someone feel better is much easier when you know what works and what doesn’t. Follow the six suggestions above. No matter what is distressing the person, this way of listening is scientifically proven to help.

Read more: Burleson Translation

Adam Khan is the author of Principles For Personal Growth, Slotralogy, Antivirus For Your Mind, and co-author with Klassy Evans of How to Change the Way You Look at Things (in Plain English). Follow his podcast, The Adam Bomb.

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