How to Comfort Another: Here's What Science Says

When it comes to comforting another, it doesn't matter what we feel or think. It's the other person who matters. As a matter of fact, it's extremely useful to learn how to carry out this practice.
How to Comfort Another: Here's What Science Says
Valeria Sabater

Written and verified by the psychologist Valeria Sabater.

Last update: 14 December, 2021

Not everyone knows how to comfort another. In fact, the art of giving support and providing warmth and comfort to those who are suffering isn’t easy. However, although pain takes many forms and has multiple origins, when it comes to being supportive to someone there are certain common strategies that can help you.

The Swedish writer Stig Dagerman said that the human need for comfort is insatiable. Nevertheless, it’s often a dimension that’s missed. This creates wounds and voids. As a matter of fact, comfort starts from understanding. Indeed, this is what people in need of comfort are often longing for – an understanding or a genuine connection to others.

When you’re having a bad time, you don’t expect others to also feel dejected. What you expect is that they don’t judge or harass you, they simply let you be. In fact, consolation starts from the invisible dimension of real affection. Furthermore, it means you’re able to unburden yourself and talk about what’s hurting you.

Let’s take a closer look.

daughter supporting her mother symbolizing how to comfort with words

Keys to knowing how to comfort another

“Be brave. Don’t worry. I’m sorry about what happened to you but give yourself a bit of  time and you’ll see how, in just a couple of months, you’ll feel better.” When it comes to comforting, there are multiple expressions that, in many cases, far from fulfilling the purpose, further intensify the person’s suffering.

Undoubtedly, behind these expressions is good faith. Of course, when someone tells you to “Calm down, I’ve been through exactly the same. It passes”, they do so with no ill intentions. However, they simply don’t realize that this string of unfortunate words only pressurizes you. In fact, they’ve basically told you that anyone can overcome this particular problem, and consequently, if you don’t, you’ll be a failure.

Lack of wisdom, lack of skills in terms of emotional support, psychological clumsiness… There are many mistakes made in the practice of comforting. Although these people do show empathy and try to connect with the other’s discomfort and pain, they don’t always know what to say or how to respond. In fact, knowing how to comfort another according to what science says can be extremely important. Indeed, it’s an ability we should all learn to cultivate.

1. I know you’re suffering and I’m really sorry

John Gottman is a clinical psychologist, researcher, and expert in couple relationships. He explains in his books how to comfort a partner. He claims that when a partner in a relationship is suffering, what they expect from the other is for them to be their sounding board. In other words, to demonstrate understanding and empathy.

Gottman defines this as being a close witness to the partner’s pain. To be a mirror and a close presence who understands and knows how to be there for their partner. For this reason, one of the best phrases or expressions that can be said is “I know you’re suffering and I’m really sorry”, or “I’m really sorry about what you’re going through. I understand your pain and sadness”.

The key is to validate the feelings of the other, to make them see that everything they feel makes sense. For this reason, it’s important to give them relief and create a refuge so that they feel free to express to you what they need.

2. No wise reasoning, judgments, or references to your own experiences are needed

When you offer comfort and support to another, remember that they don’t need your pearls of wisdom or philosophical reasoning. Furthermore, it doesn’t help the other person to hear that you’ve gone through the same thing as them, so everything will work out okay for them in the end.

In reality, everyone’s life is unique and exceptional. Therefore, it’s better to avoid comparisons. The University of Illinois (USA) conducted a study that claimed to comfort another the following aspects must be taken into account:

  • Conversational behaviors are essential in the process of comfort and support, but in them, we must avoid judgments. For example, expressions like “This happened to you because of (…)” or “What you should’ve done is (…)” far from helping, do precisely the opposite.

3. The sufferer doesn’t want advice

Tips and recommendations can be given by a teacher to a high school student. Or, when a friend expressly asks you for guidance on a specific topic. However, in the field of comfort, emotional comfort, and psycho-emotional support it isn’t useful to tell another what to do.

Dr. Xi Tian and other scientists at Pennsylvania State University conducted a study that investigated how to comfort another. They discovered that well-intentioned advice is counterproductive. Moreover, what it often generates is psychological reactance. In other words, a tendency to reject the indications or recommendations made.

In order to avoid such a reaction, you should avoid telling the other person what to do or feel. In fact, expressions such as “Get that idea out of your head” or “Don’t think about it anymore” should be replaced by “What you feel is completely normal. I understand you and I’m sorry”.

Girl hugging a friend to represent how to comfort with words

4. I’m here whenever you need me

It seems that, when comforting another, it’s almost more important to be clear about what not to do. One mistake you might often tend to make is obsessing over ‘being there.’ Of course, closeness helps and is essential. However, you must know when to give them space. Therefore, give them time and respect their needs.

Knowing how to provide support without intruding is an art. In fact, you need to learn how to be close without being overwhelming. To do this, you should let the person know that you’re thinking of them, that they’re in your heart, and that you’re there whenever they need you. Being a shoulder to cry on and to know how to listen is of paramount importance.

Finally, we’ve all, at some point, found ourselves in these complex situations. Indeed, we’ve all been in the position of both comforter and comforted. Neither situation is simple. However, it’s a good idea to normalize them. This helps you to achieve the ability to comfort another. At the end of the day, comforting requires prudence, wisdom, and an emotional connection, one that comforts without invading.

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  • Bodie, Graham. (2013). The Role of Thinking in the Comforting Process An Empirical Test of a Dual-Process Framework. Communication Research. 40. 533-558. 10.1177/0093650211427030.
  • Norberg, Astrid & Bergsten, Monica & Lundman, Berit. (2001). A Model of Consolation. Nursing ethics. 8. 544-53. 10.1177/096973300100800608.
  • Xi Tian, Denise Haunani Solomon, Kellie St.Cyr Brisini, How the Comforting Process Fails: Psychological Reactance to Support Messages, Journal of Communication, Volume 70, Issue 1, February 2020, Pages 13–34, https://doi.org/10.1093/joc/jqz040