Saying these words when someone is upset is the best thing you can do

Therapists and bartenders are used to hearing other people’s problems every day, but for the rest of us, trying to comfort a distressed or in-crisis friend/loved one can be a delicate situation. No one wants to say the wrong thing and make things worse, but what’s the right approach to take?

A new study from Ohio State University has an answer to that age-old question, and it’s a suggestion that’s easy to incorporate into the conversation the next time you find yourself comforting someone in need.

Ultimately, researchers say the key to helping someone feel better is validation. A statement as simple as “I understand why you feel that way” can make all the difference.

For this study, a group of participants told the research team about a real-life situation that made them angry or upset. When the study’s authors reacted to these stories with confusion (“why would that make you so mad?”) and a lack of support & understanding, subjects immediately showed a decrease in positive emotions.

Conversely, if researchers simply supported and validated how participants felt, study subjects’ positive emotions were “protected” and remained consistent.

Additionally, participants consistently reported feeling even worse after recanting their distressing experiences. That’s relatively predictable, but only study subjects who were validated by researchers were able to “recover” back to how they were initially feeling.

Now, it’s important to note that even validated participants’ negative emotions didn’t dissipate all that much. What does that mean? When someone is upset about something, validating and understanding their feelings isn’t going to necessarily make them suddenly forget why they’re angry. That person will still be upset, but validation helps them maintain some self-worth and optimism. 

“We have underestimated the power of positive emotions. We spend so much time thinking about how to remedy negative emotions, but we don’t spend much time thinking about helping people harness and nurture positive emotions,” explains senior study author Jennifer Cheavens, a professor of psychology at The Ohio State University, in a release. “It’s really important to help people with their depression, anxiety and fear, but it’s also important to help people tap into curiosity, love, flexibility and optimism. People can feel sad and overwhelmed, and also hopeful and curious, in the same general time frame.”

Across three experiments involving 307 undergrad students at OSU, study authors assessed the impact of validation and invalidation on both positive and negative affect. According to the research team, positive affect refers to positive emotions that allow us to be curious, optimistic, flexible, and connected. Negative affect, on the other hand, includes feelings like fear, disgust, and sadness.

At the beginning and the end of the study each participant filled out a survey gauging positive and negative affect, and subjects’ overall mood was measured periodically as well.

After being told to write down and reflect on an incident that made them feel angry, each subject then verbally told a researcher about that experience. Then, on a random basis, researchers either replied with a validating (“of course you’d be angry about that”) or an invalidating (“why would that make you so angry?”) statement. 

Most of the incidents described by participants were fairly consistent with the daily trials and tribulations of a modern college student. Roommate issues, unfaithful relationship partners, and disputes between parents were a few common topics, although some talked about being the victim of a theft or robbery.

Across the board, students’ moods grew worse (a drop in positive affect) as they remembered their troubling experience, however, those who were given a validating response by researchers were able to regain or even exceed their prior positivity levels. Those given a more combative response stayed angry and even saw their mood continually grow worse.

“When you process negative emotions, that negative affect gets turned on. But if someone validates you, it keeps your positive affect buffered. Validation protects people’s affect so they can stay curious in interpersonal interactions and in therapy,” professor Cheavens concludes. “Adding validation into therapy helps people feel understood, and when we feel understood we can receive feedback on how we also might change. But it’s not a uniquely clinical thing – often the same ways you make therapy better are ways you make parenting, friendships and romantic relationships better.”

Many people enjoy hearing others’ problems and helping them work through those experiences, while some aren’t comfortable taking on that type of role. Regardless of where you fall on that spectrum, chances are you’ll find yourself comforting a friend or loved one at some point. In those moments, remember a little bit of validation can go a long way.

The full study can be found here, published in the Journal of Positive Psychology.