UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — When stress from hard and uncertain times bears down on our lives, support from friends and family can have dramatic positive outcomes for all involved. But it’s important to be cognizant of the ways in which we offer that support. According to a study by researchers at Penn State University, comforting words can have varying effects on others based on how they’re phrased.

For the study, the researchers examined how people responded to several different messages trying to offer emotional support. They found that messages which validated a person’s feelings were more helpful overall than the ones that were critical or that diminished emotions. The research team said that their results could help people offer more effective support to their friends and families.

“One recommendation is for people to avoid using language that conveys control or uses arguments without sound justification,” says graduate student researcher Xi Tian in a university release. “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.”

According to Tian, previous research has shown that social support lowers emotional distress and improve physical and psychological well-being, while also acting as a balm for personal relationships during a stressful time. Depending on how messages offering social support are worded, they could be counterproductive, increasing stress and reducing an individual’s confidence that they can manage their own stressful situations.

The research team recruited 478 married adults who had recently argued with their spouse. The participants completed an online questionnaire after thinking about someone they had discussed their marriage or their spouse with. They were then presented with one of six different supportive messages and asked to imagine that person gave them the message. The final action the participants took was to rate their given message on several characteristics.

“We manipulated the messages based on how well the support message validates, recognizes, or acknowledges the support recipients’ emotions, feelings, and experiences,” explains Tian. “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.”

According to the results, person-centered messaging recognizes another person’s feelings, helping them explore why they feel the way they do. An example of a high person-centered message is: “Disagreeing with someone you care about is always hard. It makes sense that you would be upset about this.” Compare that message to one that expresses a similar idea but is critical of and challenges the person’s feelings: “Nobody is worth getting so worked up about. Stop being so depressed.”

The researchers confirmed their hypothesis after analyzing the data. They found that low person-centered support messages, like the previous one, didn’t help people manage their marital disagreement and reduce their emotional distress.

“In fact, those messages were perceived as dominating and lacking argument strength,” says Tian. “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.”

High person-centered messages helped emotional improvement. Above all, the researchers recommended people use language that expresses care, sympathy, and concern.

The study was published in the Journal of Communication.

About Ben Renner

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