Messages that offer stressed out people validation are more effective and helpful than those that are critical or diminish their emotions, researchers report.
The researchers studied how people dealing with stress responded to a variety of different messages offering emotional support.
The results could help people provide better support to their friends and families, they say.
“One recommendation is for people to avoid using language that conveys control or uses arguments without sound justification,” says Xi Tian, a graduate assistant in communication arts and sciences at Penn State.
“For example, instead of telling a distressed person how to feel, like ‘don’t take it so hard’ or ‘don’t think about it,’ you could encourage them to talk about their thoughts or feelings so that person can come to their own conclusions about how to change their feelings or behaviors.”
Stress vs. social support
Tian says that previous research has shown that social support can help alleviate emotional distress, increase physical and psychological well-being, and improve personal relationships. But—depending on how support is phrased or worded—it could be counterproductive, such as actually increasing stress or reducing a person’s confidence that they can manage their stressful situation.
The researchers were trying to learn more about why well-intentioned attempts to comfort others are sometimes seen as insensitive or unhelpful, says Denise Solomon, department head and professor of communication arts and sciences.
“We wanted to examine the underlying mechanism that explains why some supportive messages may produce unintended consequences,” Solomon says. “We also wanted to understand how people cognitively and emotionally respond to insensitive social support.”
For the study, the researchers recruited 478 married adults who had recently experienced an argument with their spouse. Before completing an online questionnaire, participants were asked to think about someone with whom they had previously discussed their marriage or spouse. Then, the researchers presented them with one of six possible supportive messages and asked them to imagine that person giving them that message.
Lastly, the researchers asked participants to rate their given message on a variety of characteristics.
“We manipulated the messages based on how well the support message validates, recognizes, or acknowledges the support recipients’ emotions, feelings, and experiences,” Tian says. “Essentially, the messages were manipulated to exhibit low, moderate, or high levels of person-centeredness, and we created two messages for each level of person-centeredness.”
Validation or criticism
According to the researchers, a highly person-centered message recognizes the other person’s feelings and helps the person explore why they might be feeling that way. For example, “Disagreeing with someone you care about is always hard. It makes sense that you would be upset about this.”
Meanwhile, a low person-centered message is critical and challenges the person’s feelings. For example, “Nobody is worth getting so worked up about. Stop being so depressed.”
After analyzing the data, the researchers found that low person-centered support messages did not help people manage their marital disagreement in a way that reduced emotional distress.
“In fact, those messages were perceived as dominating and lacking argument strength,” Tian says. “Those messages induced more resistance to social support, such that the participants reported feeling angry after receiving the message. They also reported actually criticizing the message while reading it.”
In contrast, high person-centered messages produced more emotional improvement and circumvented reactance to social support.
“Another recommendation that can be taken from this research is that people may want to use moderately to highly person-centered messages when helping others cope with everyday stressors,” says Solomon.
The researchers say people can try using language that expresses sympathy, care, and concern. For example, “I’m sorry you are going through this. I’m worried about you and how you must be feeling right now.”
Acknowledging the other person’s feelings or offering perspective—like saying “It’s understandable that you are stressed out since it’s something you really care about”—may also be helpful in fighting stress.
The research appears in the Journal of Communication. Penn State’s communications arts and sciences department helped support the research.
Source: Penn State