These days, anxiety is pretty widespread—and it’s tempting to want to soothe a co-worker or friend who is experiencing a high level of stress. But, as you may have noticed, telling an anxiety-ridden person to “calm: down” can backfire. A new study suggests that the most effective way to calm someone down is simply to reflect and validate their feelings.
To figure this out, researchers tested out a variety of approaches to comforting 325 married participants who volunteered to think about a fight with their partners and report on how various attempts by a friend to cheer them up made them feel.
Some of the approaches were “low person-centered,” meaning messages that minimized the person’s distress or suggested they shouldn’t feel so upset. Others were “high person-centered,” i.e. they validated the person’s stress, saying things like “you have every right to feel upset” or “it’s understandable you are stressed out.” The more empathic approaches were the clear winners.
The bottom line: Minimizing people’s emotions can come off as controlling and condescending. As columnist Jessica Stillman writes in Inc., “If you’re genuinely interested in making someone feel a little better when they’re understandably stressed out, give up on cheering them up. You mean well but they’ll probably just feel like you’re trying to push them around. A far better bet, science shows, is simply listening with empathy.”