How can you comfort someone?

By M.Farouk Radwan, MSc.

Why it is hard to comfort people

Do you try to give as many advice as you can to the people in trouble and they still don’t appreciate it?

Do you do the opposite, listen to them speak and vent but they start feeling like you don’t care and pretending to?

If both are not comforting then what is the right thing to do?
How can you help comfort someone when you truly want to?
Let’s first have a look at the psychology behind both and walk you through what people need exactly.

How empathy affects the brain

You may think it’s very absurd when people hate the idea of listening to you providing solutions to their problems and just want you to listen!

In a recent experiment participants were given signals in the form of shapes on their screens of when they were going to experience a mild electric shock through their ankle and when they weren’t.

They put in an fMRI machine to monitor their brains responses, and of course every time the participants were expected to receive a shock the parts of the brain that are involved in threat response became more active.

What is interesting in this experiment is that they added another factor to it to test the brains response to the electric shocks. Participants were then allowed to hold hands with a close friend, who was also to be monitored as they stood by holding hands as support.

What researchers saw was that the activity in their friend’s brain was almost identical when they were about to receive the shock. It was as if they themselves were about to receive it, showing the brain’s remarkable capability to model self to others.
So why do people just want us to listen?

When a listener responds with empathy towards someone venting, they provide them with a sense of security. When they feel that someone is feeling them, they get an unconscious sense of security that they are not alone. (see also Should i tell my friends about my problems)

Psychology of problem solving

When any person goes through a tough situation the brain sends signals in the form of negative emotions in an effort to push the person to do something about his/her trouble. However, when a person doesn’t respond by taking action, the brain sends more severe signals to make sure we get up and take action.

Luckily we don’t need to wait until the problem is solved to feel relieved, a huge amount of the negative signals stop as soon as we think of a solution. Remember, the point of the signals in the first place were to make sure we do something about it, so there is no need to send more if we’re already putting our attention to it. (see How to turn negative emotions into a positive force)

Usually, most people facing a problem focus more on the severity of the problem rather than on what to do to solve the problem. This happens due to the intense negative emotions they are experiencing due to their current situation.

When you brainstorm with them on solutions, you help them shift their attention from the problem to the solution which relieves most of the negative emotions they are passing through.

So how can I comfort someone exactly?

As we’ve walked through the importance of both listening and providing solutions you have a good idea why exactly you should use them.
So am I concluding that people need both? Not just that.

In order to effectively help comfort someone, you need to do these in the right order, since the right order is what people really need. First, you need to provide them with security before you wonder why they are responding emotionally.

Next, when they are finally comforted by the fact that they are not alone and that people are sharing their concerns, they will be more open to listen or actively participate in the brainstorming process to solve their problem. At this point start sharing with them all the suggestions that you have.

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