The Smartest Way to Respond to a Friend in Need

November 7, 2015

Many of us think we know how to be supportive when a friend is going through a tough time. We might offer our condolences, swap in a story of our own, or even buy them a drink. But what do friends really want from us when life throws them a hurdle?

 

Our data-based answer: while it varies from situation to situation, most people want empathy and sympathy, and people often want to have their feelings validated by a friend who can also offer a dose of positivity. People don’t usually want you to tell them a story about similar situations you’ve gone through, or try to help them have perspective on their situation.

 

A recent ClearerThinking.org study investigated how to react after a friend's just told you about a tough situation. We randomized 148 study participants to one of three scenarios. They were asked to imagine that that morning their dog died, they lost their job, or a series of frustrating events occurred on a trip to the post office. Participants then wrote down exactly what they'd want a friend to say to them in that situation. They also checked off descriptors of their response from a list of options shown in random order. The most common thing people wanted a friend to do was empathize, that is showing that they understand and feel their friend's feelings as if they were their own.

 

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For example, in the scenario where a beloved dog passed away, one participant wanted to hear, "I know your feelings and understand them. Pets become family members and it hurts to see them go.  I feel for you. "

 

Sympathy was the next most desired response. When we sympathize, we're expressing that we're sorry that a friend went through a difficult experience, but we're not necessarily experiencing their feelings with them. About getting fired, someone wanted to hear: "That's terrible! You must really be upset. What an awful thing to do to someone."

 

Validation was also popular – letting a friend know that their feelings are reasonable and understandable. "It makes total sense that you feel so frustrated, I'd be this frustrated too!"

 

Trading stories was also the least popular response. Telling someone about a similar experience you've been through may not always be appropriate, as in, "I had a horrible morning too! Here's what happened to me…" Offering perspective was also unpopular on average. For example, "I'm sure you will have time to pick up something before the birthday. Everything will sort out, don't stress too much."

 

When we dissected the results further to see how the desired responses compared across scenarios, we found that giving advice and brainstorming solutions were more popular for the scenarios involving getting fired from a job or undergoing a series of frustrating events in which your attempts at picking up a birthday present for a nephew fail horribly. People in these scenarios wanted ways to move past their situation. For example, one participant wanted to hear, "Don't worry, get your résumé out, update it and send out, apply for unemployment to help you get by, contact your 'boss' and request explanation, contact HR for input."

 

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Positivity was the most desired support for people who imagined they were fired from a job, as in, "You're a good worker. I know someone out there will be happy to hire you. Look at this as an opportunity to find something better."

 

A different perspective was the least popular response for people asked to imagine that their dog died, as in "I understand losing animals is tough but maybe eventually you will be able to get another dog to keep you company." Brainstorming solutions was also unpopular. Mostly people in this group wanted empathy, sympathy and validation by a friend who can also stay positive.

 

So what's the big takeaway? When a friend is going through a tough time, being empathetic is likely to be the most supportive thing you can do. Offering sympathy, validation, and positivity are also good options. If your friend needs to get out of their tough situation, giving advice and helping them to brainstorm solutions are also good ideas, especially once they've had time to process their emotions. Below are a few examples of good responses from each scenario.

 

Frustrating Series of Events:

  • "That's horrible. I'm so sorry you had such a rough day. Is there anything I can do to help?"

  • "That's so ridiculous. Come on, let's call the company up and get a refund."

  • "I'm so sorry that happened, I can't believe them! Come on, I'll help you pick something new out really quick."

 

Fired from Job:

  • "That sucks!  I can't believe your boss had the balls to fire you over EMAIL!  You deserve to work in a much better place than this... a place that nurtures hard-working employees like you.  You can do way better!"

  • "That's really unfortunate, I'm sorry to hear that. I've been there before, and I know it's hard. I know you though, and you'll manage to get through. If there's anything I can do to help, please let me know."

  • "You are still in your peak working years and you have skills to fall back on. There are a lot of opportunities for you out there. I can recommend you to some hiring managers who would value your abilities."

 

Dog Passed Away:

  • "Oh wow, that is so sad. Your dog is friend not just a pet. Coming home to an empty house and not doing the things that you usually do together — walks, frisbee, hell, even fetch — is gonna be so hard.

  • "I'm so sorry. She was such a nice, wonderful dog. I will miss her and mourn for her too.  I feel it is an honor to mourn for such a special friend, and I am lucky to have known her."

  • "Oh, I am so sorry to hear this. Please know that I am here to support you. Maybe some days we can take walks together in remembrance of your dog."

 

Want to see the full study details? Click here to run the study as a participant would and click here to view a CSV of the data.

 

Below is the full list of checkbox options participants could select to describe their written response. In future studies we may test additional options such as provide humor or distraction.

 

Which of the following best describe how you would want your friend to respond to you after you tell them about this frustrating situation?

  • Emphathize - show they understand and feel your feelings as if they were their own

  • Trade Stories - tell you about a similarly {emotion} experience that they've had

  • Advice - offer you advice as to how you can work through or improve your situation

  • Sympathize - show they are sorry and feel bad for you that you went through a {emotion} experience

  • Validate - show that they think it's very reasonable and understandable to feel how you felt in this situation

  • Brainstorm - offer to work together with you to come up with ideas for how you can feel better and reduce the problem

  • Volunteer - ask if they can spend their time right now doing something to help

  • Give Perspective - point out that it's not that bad in the grand scheme of things or could have been much worse

  • Be Positive - stay optimistic and help you see the bright side despite

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