Someone you know feels bad and you want to help. I like that about you. But you probably already know that sometimes when you try to help, it doesn’t help, even if you have good intentions and try really hard. You need to know how to make someone feel better. You need to know specifically what to do that will really help.
When you try to help someone, there are two things you can do: Take some physical action that helps, or listen. Seeking to discover how to make someone feel better, we can quickly narrow it down to those two possibilities.
But for a physical action to really help someone, you would first have to talk to the person and listen (so you would know enough about the situation to take the right actions). Listening would have to be the first step. So really, in our quest to discover how to make someone feel better, we can narrow it all the way down to one thing: We need to know how to listen to someone in a way that really helps them feel better.
Brant Burleson, a researcher at Purdue University, after a lifetime of doing listening experiments and studying the experiments of others, came up with authentic answers to the question. According to the research, this is how to make someone feel better:
1. Make it clear right 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. When someone is in distress, the way they perceive the world is often distorted and they may misperceive your intentions. So make it plain as day that you want to help. This is the beginning of how to make someone feel better.
2. Make it clear the other person is in control. By saying you want to help, you can almost immediately get into trouble because in their misery, they can easily interpret your desire to help as if you’re really saying they are incompetent and can’t handle things on their own. So the second thing you must make sure you do when listening to someone in distress is let the other person know you know she is in charge and you are merely her assistant in this matter, and make it clear you think of her as a competent, capable person — capable of thinking things through, and capable of handling her situation. This is a key factor in how to make someone feel better.
Also make sure you are not in any way 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 critical judgment.
3. Show intense interest and concern about her situation — the circumstances. 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 the person 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, or whatever. Get as much detail as possible.
When someone is feeling bad, what really helps is giving them time to think about what happened and to think through all the feelings they have about it. If you want to know how to make someone feel better, that’s it in a nutshell. The reason good listening helps is it gives the person exactly what they need: The opportunity to think it all through.
4. Try your best to sincerely empathize. While you’re listening, you may think to yourself, “How can he be so stupid as to get himself 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 into trouble. Accept that about the person. Now that he is in this mess, 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.” It will help you maintain rapport. When you make a statement the other person thinks is untrue, it can interfere with your rapport. So make sure when you speak, you are accurate.
5. Make it clear you are available to listen, no matter what the person says. Sometimes when listening, you’ll feel the urge to argue or tell your own story. Restrain yourself from doing either of these things when you’re trying to make someone feel better. Encourage her to talk, and keep your own input to yourself, at least until she asks for your input.
But don’t abandon or reject her no matter what she says or how she says it. Cut her some slack in her hour of need. Make it clear you’re with her and available to her for whatever she needs.
6. Demonstrate you are on their side, but not by criticizing anybody else. Burleson found that any kind of criticism you make — even to agree with the person about someone else — doesn’t help. But make it obvious that no matter what, you are with him. You are on his side.
This is how to make someone feel better. Listen well. Follow the six suggestions above. No matter what is distressing the person, this way of listening has the best chance of making her feel better.
Adam Khan is the author of Slotralogy, Direct Your Mind, and co-author with Klassy Evans of What Difference Does It Make?: How the Sexes Differ and What You Can Do About It. Follow his podcast, The Adam Bomb.