You've probably had the experience of trying to calm an anxious friend or employee, only to have your good faith attempt just end up annoying them more. Experts say this is common. Trying to soothe anxious people by telling them to 'calm down' or pointing out that things could be worse tends to backfire badly.
Right now we need all the help we can get keeping each other as level-headed and positive as possible. So what does work if the usual approaches don't? A new study suggests that the only effective way to calm someone down is simply to reflect and validate their feelings.
Trying to cheer people up doesn't work.
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 partner and report on how various attempts by a friend to cheer them up made them feel. The results were recently published in the Journal of Communication.
Some of the approaches were what the researchers dubbed "low person-centered." That's fancy science speak for 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 empathetic approaches were the clear winner. "High person-centered messages were associated with higher levels of emotional improvement," reports the British Psychological Society Research Digest Blog. "There was also less emotional reactance to high person-centered messages -- participants felt less angry, less critical and less likely to argue with their friend."
The researchers (as well as common sense) suggest that's because recognizing someone's emotions doesn't feel coercive. Attempts to minimize someone's anxiety, no matter how well intentioned, can come off as controlling.
The bottom line here is a useful reminder for bosses as well as friends in our current trying times. If you're genuinely interested in making someone feel a little better when they're understandable 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.