The Best Phrase to Support Someone Who’s Struggling

Two words for an instant dose of empathy

I have a friend whose best quality is seeing all sides of a situation. That Switzerland-level neutrality comes in handy when I need an objective opinion about a potential haircut, but when I come home and my haircut looks nothing like I expected? In that case, “Your hairdresser probably didn’t mean to give you a bowl cut” is probably the most annoying response I can imagine. I want my friend to see and embrace my side of the story––not necessarily to agree with my opinion about the hairdresser or salon, but to validate that yes, this experience sucks.

The other day on Instagram, one of my favorite follows––the therapist Lindsay Braman––captured the importance of this type of validation in a post about how to stave off shame (in this case, in a conversation with your partner). “Neutrality on the part of a listener makes shame grow bigger,” she wrote. In other words, your objectivity, well-meaning as it is, could make another person feel like their emotions are too much.

Braman’s proposed solution? Instead of chiming in with another perspective or even simply nodding your head in agreement, try mirroring the other person’s struggle with the words “of course”––a simpler way of expressing “Yes, it makes total sense that you feel or think this way or want or need this thing, and I probably would, too, if I were in your shoes.”

Validating someone’s feelings is a lot easier said than done, especially if you don’t share an opinion, or if you, like my friend, don’t like to take sides. Personally, I’ve noticed I’m more likely to respond empathetically when I imagine the way I’d talk to my six-year-old. I’d never stare at him blankly or explain away his emotions if he came to me in the middle of the night crying about a bad dream. Instead, I’d give him a big hug and say “Of course you’re upset; that sounds so scary!” Hopefully, my attempt at validating his experience sucks the venom out of that scary moment by showing him it’s normal to have nightmares, and that he can come to me if he has another one.

This verbal affirmation of an adult human’s emotions works the same way––it shows them you’re listening, that you understand (or, at least, you’re trying to), and most importantly, that you respect the way they feel. With this small-but-important connection, you’ll keep shame at bay by helping that person feel more understood and supported. And you’ll grow closer in your relationship.

Writer-mom hybrid. Health & psychology stories in NYT, WaPo, Allure, Real Simple, & more.

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