Should you express sympathy, downplay the situation, say you know how they feel, or something else entirely?
Shawna Tanner at Wayne State University and her colleagues propose that in all likelihood trying too hard to say the right thing could actually lead you to make “clumsy statements that do more harm than good”.
They advise that as long as your friend or relative sees you as supportive, then your “mere presence and sympathy is likely enough”.
Tanner’s team first re-analysed data published in 2008 that involved nearly 300 schoolchildren (aged 10 to 15) rating the supportiveness of six statements.
The six statements represented different supportive strategies such as offering sympathy, being optimistic or minimising the seriousness of the situation.
There was barely any agreement between the children in their ratings of the supportiveness of the statements.
Instead, more relevant were participants’ own idiosyncrasies – how they happened to like some supportive statements but not others. »