There have probably been a couple of times in your life when you've found yourself in a position where you've had to comfort someone. Maybe it was a family member, a friend, a colleague, or even a stranger. And there's a high probability that at least once or twice you've struggled a bit when giving said comfort.
You can be a truly empathetic person, know all the social etiquette rules, and be very well-spoken yet still have trouble finding the right words or actions in certain situations when someone is going through a tough time. Whenever I'm in this position, no matter who it is, I'm always stressing about whether I'm saying anything remotely helpful or actually making the situation better.
The thing is there aren't really any hard-and-fast guidelines when it comes to this whole comforting thing. There might be some general things you want to tick off or make sure you're doing, but there's no rule book on this type of stuff because every situation is so unique and every relationship is different.
I might comfort a friend who lost their job differently than I would a co-worker who is going through a breakup. I would probably support my mom in a different way than I would my sister because of our family dynamics. It all can be very circumstantial.
But for hard times, especially right now with everything that's going on, we may find ourselves really searching for the right words or actions. We may want to be there for our friends and family now more than ever because we can't see them that often due to social distancing guidelines. It's a time when everything feels uncertain and vulnerable, so you probably feel the need to connect more.
While there are no official rules on what to say in X, Y, Z tough situation, I thought there had to be some things you want to keep in mind when providing comfort and checking in on others. So I asked the experts for a couple of tips. Here's what I learned.
1. Check In With Yourself First
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"Before checking in with others, it's important to check in with yourself," says Brittney Cobb, MSW, LCSW, founder of Be Well Mental Health & Consulting Services. "Are you energized enough to support someone else? Feeling burnt out? Take care of you so you are able to make room to support others without overwhelming yourself."
2. Keep in Mind Every Person Is Different
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It helps to understand your relationship with the other person and what their own needs would be and act accordingly. "It's good to keep in mind that every person is different," Cobb explains. "What you need and what someone else needs is probably different. I would also be mindful of your role and remember that you are offering support not as a professional but as a friend or family member."
3. Ask What Their Bandwidth Is
If you want to check in on someone but don't want to overwhelm or seem overbearing, you can simply ask them what they're up for. "I think one way to meaningfully check in is to ask what their bandwidth is for conversation," explains Meghan Watson, MA, registered psychotherapist and managing director at Bloom Psychology & Wellness. "Even if it isn't anything meaningful that you are really discussing with a family member or a friend, we've all experienced, in the past couple of months, small things can be a mighty load. So you can ask, 'What resources do you have to chat today?' 'Do you have the bandwidth to tell me how you're feeling?' is a really helpful tool to check in. You're there, but you're not dumping or you're not asking outright entries of questions. You're just testing the water, gauging the temperature."
4. Send a Simple Text
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"A simple text message or care package is a wonderful way to show you care while giving your loved one space," suggests Nina Vasan, MD, chief medical officer of Real, an on-demand therapy platform offering membership starting at $28/month. "It allows them to reply at the time that is right for them."
Cobb gave a couple of phrases to try: "Hey, just checking in to see how you're doing," "What are you feeling?" or "Is there anything I can do to help or support you at this time?" If the person doesn't know what they need, that's okay. "It doesn’t mean figure it out for them or rush to solutions," Cobb explains. "It could mean simply listening, allowing them space to talk and vent, or allowing them to come to you when they are ready."
5. Observe, Disclose, and Reaffirm
You might see that your friend or family member is struggling, and you might not be sure how to approach them. Watson says the first thing you can do is start with an observation, disclose a vulnerability that you may have, and reaffirm why you're reaching out. "It can be really validating to name that you're noticing, perhaps, someone is uncomfortable or has been struggling," she says. "This doesn't have to be a long conversation, but it can look like, 'I know that things have been really hard. I've been really struggling. And some of the things that I do when I'm struggling are talk to my friends and walk and run. I want to be able to check in and make sure that the people I love are comfortable. Is there anything I can do to help?'"
Recognizing their struggle, sharing your own struggles, and explaining that you care and are there for them may help make the person feel heard and comfortable with you.
6. Use Specific Language
You'll want to make sure you are validating and acknowledging their feelings. Watson cites a talk Brené Brown gave on empathy where she says the least empathetic way to start a conversation is with the phrase, "At least." "I think when we're all chatting about how our year has been, particularly in 2020, it can be tempting to say, 'Well, at least you have your health' or 'at least so and so is doing well' or at least, at least, at least," Watson says. "And that can be completely invalidating for the person who really just wants support for what actually is going on."
Instead, use gentle, compassionate, and soft language like "Is there anything you need?" or "In a perfect world, what can I do to support?" or "Can we find a place to be in the middle?" Vasan adds that open-ended questions can help the person open up as well.
7. Avoid Language That Can Be Blaming
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You'll want to steer clear of any phrases or words that can be seen as blaming or criticizing. "[Avoid] language that is judgmental, forceful, or reinforces shame—phrases like 'You should…,' 'Why didn't you…?' or 'That was a mistake,'" Cobb says. "People want to feel safe enough to be vulnerable, and when we talk about comforting and supporting others, without safety, people won't open up."
8. Do a "Friend Test"
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Use some introspection when you're trying to figure out if what you're saying is actually helpful or useful or is completely out of touch. "I'd recommend doing the 'friend test,'" Vasan suggests. "Think about how you would feel if your friend said the same thing to you."
9. Don't Force the Situation
It helps to read the room, so to speak (even if you're texting or on the phone), and any social cues. "Sometimes, we don't know how a person will react or respond until we are in the situation," Cobb says. "If you check in with someone and they aren't responsive or short with their responses, it may be likely that they do not want to engage. You cannot force someone to respond or be willing to share if they aren't comfortable."
10. Understand That You May Say the Wrong Thing
Yeah, this might happen. Don't beat yourself up about it. "First of all, release the idea that you're not going to say the wrong thing and that you won't mess up," Watson says. "It is important to know that there are so many miscommunications that can happen. Make sure that you're really listening and clarifying what you hear. With technology, it can be difficult to make sure that you're hearing the right thing."
She recommends using paraphrasing and clarifying statements to make sure you really understand the situation, like "So what I'm hearing is…" or "It sounds like…." These phrases can help ensure that what you're saying actually answers the person's questions or needs and is meaningful to them.
11. Ask for Feedback
No, you don't have to give them a "How Did I Do?" survey at the end of your conversation, but you can ask them if what you discussed was helpful. "Communication is key," Cobb says. "'Was I helpful?' 'Did this help you at all?' 'Is there anything I could have done better?' No one will get it right all of the time. If you do or say something offensive, own it and apologize. This takes vulnerability and humility."
12. Follow Up Thoughtfully
And lastly, chances are you'll probably want to check in on that person afterward. But there's always the question of whether you're being too pushy or maybe even not checking in enough. Watson says being upfront can help.
After I have a conversation, I'll normally just disclose and say something really honest, like "After I have conversations like these, I tend to reflect a lot. And I'm wondering if you'd mind me checking in with you tomorrow, see how you feeling, maybe give you a call or a text. How would you feel about that?" Then, you'll know what their wishes or expectations are, and you can respect those accordingly.