How do I really comfort someone?
Comfort is a universally craved but little-understood phenomenon. Comfort can involve support, reassurance, a solution, acceptance - everyone needs some combination of these to find respite from the harder parts of life. But if we’re honest about those times we’ve tried to comfort someone, we’ll often realise that it was really ourselves we were trying to make feel better.
It’s easy to understand why this might be the case. Seeing a friend or loved one in distress causes us vicarious distress. When the opportunity to comfort someone presents itself, we identify that a task is at hand- And we, as humans, do not like to fail at a task. Reaching a “happy” outcome reassures us that we have succeeded, that our understanding of ourselves as helpful, a good friend, and, perhaps more importantly, a good person can remain intact because WE made them feel better. Uncertainty and pain are difficult places to dwell in - we like them to disappear as quickly as we can.
So the need to ‘succeed’ at comforting is really about oneself, and not about the person one is comforting. Their needs might be very different to yours. Empowering them is one of the most important part of this emotional exchange (and it is an exchange), and to do that, we may need to let go of our own learned method and solution to finding comfort. Because it’s not about you.
We all tend to learn particular answers to things, through experiences or what we’ve been taught. And when faced with sadness, we do what we “think” we would want, or should do (which is often NOT what we actually wanted the last time we were sad, but we forget). Then, if it fails, the onus is on the other person for blocking us, not accepting help, wallowing even, when in reality - we may have misread their needs and, God forbid, got it wrong.
So, how do we comfort someone properly? When you’re comforting someone it’s important to figure out what your role is. While comfort should always be authentic and come from the heart where possible, there may be times when what you naturally want to do doesn’t actually work for the other person. Below are some examples, though there is never a black and white answer.
As a doctor, it is often required that we deliver bad news. Comfort is an important element of this. Because a doctors role is often defined by their ability to provide a solution and a treatment, oftentimes we feel that comforting will mean providing answers. Sometimes, this isn't necessary, or even helpful, especially in the early stages of dealing with grief or bad news. Studies in breaking bad news have shown that, in fact, many patients have a 3 minute window after the news has been broken to them in which they can’t take in any new information. The best thing at that point is to purely provide emotional support, and where possible reassurance.
Parents have a different objective when they are attempting to comfort a child. They may feel the need to reassure the child because it is theirs, and in their mind, their child has a future and this distress is disrupting, or is an obstacle to overcome in the journey towards that future. They will naturally try to provide reassurance to their child that everything will be okay (especially if this is rationally the most likely outcome) - but this may not always be helpful for the child, who may feel they’re being dismissed, or who actually would benefit from truly having the emotion, and then processing, and eventually accepting the experience. The death of a pet bunny should be a sad loss, and not minimised or replaced. Dealing with this loss will actually provide the child with the tools to prepare for future loss. Otherwise, the competing needs of the parties involved can result in the child feeling condescended to and misunderstood, and a parent feeling disconnected, unheard or even untrusted by their child. Acceptance of the emotion as important and valuable, and grieving together can actually improve the child’s experience, especially if guided by the adult alongside.
While empathy and caring are always encouraged, and often taught, in some work situations, where somebody is being given bad feedback, they may not, in the professional context, want to be “hugged” (so to speak). There are those who may prefer a solution. Not wanting to appear weak, out of control, or unprofessional, comfort may not be achieved by engaging in their personal relationship and vulnerabilities, so asking someone to ‘tell me how you feel’ or pointing out that ‘you must be feeling terrible right now’ may not be appreciated, unless you’re close to that person. A workplace relationship comes with its own boundaries that need to be respected. However, providing a way to move forward, and an external focus, can actually be very comforting to someone who is scared they have failed.
The SPIKES model (Please reference properly- http://theoncologist.alphamedpress.org/content/5/4/302.full) is a breaking bad news model in medicine that talks about some important elements in a Breaking Bad news Conversation which can be valuable in comforting another:
SETTING: Think about where where you are, and how this will influence the ability to be vulnerable, emotional and honest.
PERCEPTION: Find out how the person feels and what they understand before you offer comfort to them. You want to make sure you’re on the same page about what is happening, how they feel and what they actually want and need.
INVITATION: This is key. Everyone has a choice to ask for help. You can’t force someone to be comforted by you. You have no right to presume that they need you. However, I know what you’re thinking - people don’t always know, or can’t say the words out loud. But an invitation can be implicit or explicit; there should be a period in the conversation where you gauge whether or not you are of value. It should not be because YOU want to provide comfort, but rather, because THEY want and need it. Sometimes you won’t know, and many of you will do it anyway and that’s fine - as long as you mean well, that’s a start. As you practice and experience it on the receiving end, you’ll come to understand when people require comfort and what kind of comfort they’re looking for.
KNOWLEDGE: This crosses over with
EMPATHY: It’s important to understand what the comforter needs and wants. Do they need silent support? How would you feel, in their shoes? Do they want reassurance that it will be okay? Do they want a solution so they can do something else to bring an end to the discomfort associated with the existing problem? Or, do they want a combination? Do they just want to be left alone? What they want will require various levels of empathic exchange, discussion and information. You should be ready to reel back or give more depending on how they respond to this reaching-out.
SUMMARISING STRATEGY: In the case of personal relationships, this refers to the fact that you don't ever stop comforting someone. At the end of the immediate comforting period, it is “comforting” to let them know that this isn't the end of your involvement. That once again, they have a choice about how you help them - it may be you, or there may even be other supports that are more appropriate. It might just be reminding them how they move forward. It may be that you’ll offer to see them again in a few days, a week, a month… or text them tomorrow. It’s important to focus on the needs of the other person.
It is very important to know that you are also yourself, as someone inside the comforting process, going to have some needs both during and afterwards. Sometimes you will need to do certain things to make you feel like you’ve done the right thing, especially if you are involved in the cause of the distress, or know other parties involved. It’s worth being honest to yourself about when you are making a decision that benefits you, and when you make one that is for the benefit of the other.
Protecting yourself may come into conflict with their needs - and if they respond adversely to it, you need to be ready for that. It isn't always possible to have the same needs, but you can endure this conflict, if you feel you’ve done it for the right reasons. Being conscious and continually checking in with your own needs, as well as theirs, will help you to stay on the best path.
After comforting someone, take some time to reflect on what just happened for you with the other person. Take some time to interpret that, understand that interaction, and how affected you are emotionally by what just happened. You might judge yourself. You might feel sad yourself. You might be angry. The emotions that you take from that exchange belong to you, and not to them. Never presume that comforting someone else doesn't affect you in some way - and whilst you may enter into it because of someone else’s needs, yours will emerge.
Have empathy, for the other, and also for yourself. When someone shares their pain with you, it is a gift and a burden. And it becomes part of your journey too. That is the gift you give back to them. To walk ... beside, in front of or behind. But to choose to walk.