Table of Contents
There's nothing worse than not knowing what to do when someone needs your comfort and support.
And I bet you've been on the receiving end of a well-intentioned but objectively terrible attempt to support you.
Comforting someone is both an art and a science.
Above all else, the response needs to be appropriate for the situation.
Below are the main situations you need to know for how to comfort someone.
Take what you can from best practices, and then make these strategies your own.
Your best bet is to match what's appropriate for the situation with what's undeniably you.
How to Comfort People in General (Life Lessons / Best Practices)
Let's start with the general because general best practices can be applied in lots of different areas.
Here are some quick tips to ground you in comforting someone, whether it's a friend or relative, coworker or boss.
- Match their body language. Mimicking body language is one of the best ways to build rapport, and so much of communication is body language, not words being used.
- Ask questions. People like being able to express what they're going through and not feel that someone immediately wants to give them advice.
- Follow the 90-10 principle: Listen 90% of the time and talk 10% of the time. Believe me, this one trick works wonders. It's the best thing I ever learned working with youth who had experienced extreme levels of trauma in their lives.
- Land on the same runway they take off from. What the heck does that mean? This is something I picked up while teaching a class for the National Alliance of Mental Illness (NAMI). It means that if someone starts talking about how much it hurt them that their friend called them a name, don't try to convince them that they should really be worried about a more important issue. Take your cues from the person you're trying to support.
How to Comfort a Friend (Taking the Time)
Now it's time to dive into the specifics.
What if it's your friend you're trying to support?
Going along with the theme of doing what's appropriate, you have to ask yourself some questions before you put together a gameplan:
- How well do I know this friend?
- Is this a best friend or more of an acquaintance?
- What is our shared history?
- What kinds of experiences have we been through?
This kind of prep work is important because it will help you determine how much you can get away with, so to speak.
For instance, can you "push" your friend a bit on certain issues because you have trust built up?
Or do you need to take it easy and simply offer short statements of approval?
What's most important to remember is that just by showing up and being there, you're supporting your friend.
Your time is the most valuable resource you have, and you choosing to give it to your friend in need speaks louder than anything else.
And remember: You don't need to be a superhero and save the day with tricks and tips to get your friend out of a rut.
You can just sit there in silence if that's what the situation requires.
How to Comfort Someone Dealing With Mental Health Issues (When It's More Than Just a Rough Time)
This one scares a lot of people.
But it's one area in which I have a ton of experience, having supported many people during mental health crises and also receiving help when I had my own mental health challenges.
Something really important to remember: You cannot be rational with someone who is behaving or speaking irrationally.
You just can't.
If the person you are trying to support is out of control, keeping them safe might be the best way to support them.
If things are really bad, and the person is a risk to their safety or someone else's, you need to treat it as the emergency situation it is.
Call the police or get them to a hospital so that they can benefit from emergency services that are equipped to handle this kind of thing.
Above all, use your best judgment.
The best practices from the bulleted list above apply, but dealing with challenging mental health issues adds another dimension to the type of support you should provide.
One of the best tips I can give you is to validate, validate, validate.
Even if the situation the person is describing sounds ridiculous, you want to validate.
Because you need to establish rapport.
If you don't have rapport, your support will fall flat.
After you have rapport, then you can try more advanced tactics, such as asking questions and directing them to resources or local services.
Above all, be a human being and remember that they are a human being as well.
There's so much power in shared humanity, in quality time between two individuals.
How would you want someone to treat you if you were in a state of high anxiety or severely depressed?
Look at what the other person is going through, and put yourself in their shoes.
It's empathy 101, I know. But it's what you need to do.
It's so easy to give advice when the thing that matters most is really, truly understanding the emotional distress the other person is dealing with.
If you think you've spent enough time trying to understand, then you need to put in even more time.
Only after you feel overprepared can you start to be directive and give advice, if you do so at all.
Difficult times call for an abundance of empathy and patience.
How to Comfort Someone Living With Cancer (The Reality of Cancer Treatment)
This one is tough.
It's really, really difficult.
When someone's mortality is in question, you need to be careful.
Because emotions are likely at record highs, and you don't want to assume that you know what the person is feeling.
Only if you've been through the EXACT same thing should you try to claim that you know what they're experiencing.
Even then, using that tactic is questionable.
My wife's mom died of breast cancer when my wife was fairly young.
My wife has stories upon stories of people who did a terrible job comforting the family at the time.
And that's an important point to remember. When someone is going through the worst time of their life, there are probably several other people going through it with them.
I'm going to keep this one in list format because you know your situation best, and I can't even pretend to guess the kinds of difficult tragedies you may need to help people through.
So, just remember:
- Don't make it about you.
- Don't make the person dealing with cancer (or any other life-threatening illness, for that matter) do emotional labor for you. What I mean is this: they are already dealing with something terrible. Don't add to their concerns by making them solve your emotional issues unless they ask to do that and are a person who enjoys that sort of thing.
- Focus on simple actions. Provide physical support if that's what's needed. Cook some food if that's what you think would be helpful. Call in to check on them. You're not going to cure cancer, but you can show up and support someone else as a human being.
- Take your cues from the other person. Ask simple questions to see what they're willing to talk about. Be curious and have them invite you into their world.
How to Comfort Someone Who Is Receiving End of Life Care in Hospice (Physical Comfort and Palliative Care)
Well, darn it.
Sometimes life just isn't fair.
If you know someone is going to die, what do you do?
At this point, ensuring a good quality of life is key.
If the person is in end of life care / palliative care / hospice care, then their physical needs are probably already covered.
Talk with their health care team to see what else they might need.
Ask the health care team about your friend or family member's physical condition and mental health condition.
Getting back to the person you're supporting, try not to burden them too much.
Your goal should be to show up and be present and compassionate.
That's the best gift you can give someone at the end of their life.
Tying the Support Journey Together With a Story
One of the hardest experiences I had trying to figure out how to support someone was when a friend / coworker was dying from liver cancer.
He had become such a good friend in such a short time, the kind of person I felt like I knew in another lifetime.
He was always the one making people laugh and doing so much for other people.
So, it was hard to have the roles reversed when I visited him in hospice care.
I knew it was likely the last time I'd ever see him.
What I noticed first was how weak he looked.
And his skin was yellow from his liver failure.
My mind was racing, and I didn't know what to do.
I was even someone who had been a mental health professional in a previous job.
I just had never been in this type of situation before.
But then the stories and jokes came out of my friend, and I realized he was still the same person he had always been.
All I needed to do was be myself.
We chatted and laughed for as long as he had the strength to do so.
I felt like I needed to be doing "more," but he kept laughing and talking.
I realized then that just being there and encouraging his stories and jokes was the best way I could support him.
He died about a week later.
But he taught me so many lessons in the time that I knew him, a big, final one being that the best way to support someone is, quite simply, to be a person willing to support in the first place.