Mind & Body

There's No Perfect Thing to Say When Someone's in a Crisis

When a friend gets fired, or a family member is getting divorced, it's normal to feel at a loss for words. Nothing feels exactly right. Science backs this up: Nothing is exactly right.

What "Supportive" Even Means

Not a lot, according to a recent study, in which researchers tried to pin down a definition of "social support." This is an important concept — it's correlated with mental health — and they were curious: was the definition of social support more objective (so, about a given behavior), or was it more subjective (in the eye of the beholder)?

To figure this out, they asked participants to rate the supportiveness of various statements. In the first phase of the study, they crunched the numbers on a pre-existing dataset where about 300 kids, ages 10 to 15, evaluated six responses to a friend going through a hard time. (The age-appropriate hard times were either failing a test or being excluded from a picnic.) They found the kids agreed very little on what was and wasn't a supportive response.

Next, they tried something new, this time with fewer people — 54 undergraduate students. To start, they evaluated the participants' personalities, then had them rate 96 potentially supportive statements. Finally, they looked at how much a person's personality explained what they found supportive. In other words, after a breakup, maybe an avoidant person wanted to hear "Why don't you get some lunch and forget about the whole thing?" while an optimistic person wanted to hear, "Things have a funny way of working out for the best."

But it turns out ... no! Even among avoidant and optimistic people, researchers found no consensus about what "supportive" looked like. Even a group of students, faculty, and alumni affiliated with a clinical psychology Ph.D. program couldn't reach a consensus — and it's their job, at least in part, to provide professional support. They were asked to rate how supportive therapists were being in assorted video clips, and again (we're noticing a pattern!) no consensus emerged.

So Should I Do Nothing?

Not exactly. When people are in crisis, they sometimes report a feeling of isolation. That means it's worth trying to be supportive; it's just not worth being a perfectionist about it. Everyone perceives what's supportive differently, and it seems to have little to do with the actual words said. As the researchers put it: "[W]hat is supportive is primarily a matter of each perceiver's idiosyncratic tastes."

This makes sense and gels with Gary Chapman's theory of love languages. Just as people give and receive love in different ways — some through gifts, some through physical touch, etc. — people give and receive support differently, too.

That said, trying to support your loved ones isn't a total crapshoot. Your success has a lot to do with your existing relationship with the person; if they already feel close to you, they'll probably perceive you as supportive, even if you don't do much. "[M]ere presence and sympathy is likely enough," according to the researchers.

If you're feeling cripplingly uncertain about how to support someone, though, you can always ask! BuzzFeed recommends a straightforward "How can I support you right now?" ("What do you need right now?" also works.) Another great, nonverbal option: food! It's hard to misinterpret a pie.

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Need more help? Check out "The Compassionate Connection: The Healing Power of Empathy and Mindful Listening" by David Rakel. We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Written by Mae Rice January 14, 2019

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