Good friends offer each other emotional support in difficult times. But it’s not always easy to console someone. You may be afraid of saying or doing the wrong thing and making the situation worse. In this guide, you’ll learn how to reassure a friend in distress and make them feel better.
Here is how to comfort a friend:
If your friend seems distressed and you don’t know the reason, offer them an opportunity to tell you what has happened.
Here are some things you could say to a friend when you want to encourage them to open up:
- “What’s happened?”
- “Would you like to talk?”
- “You seem shocked. What’s the matter?”
Keep your tone soft and non-judgmental to be as comforting as possible. Don’t pressure them into opening up if they aren’t ready, pressuring them would be the opposite of comforting. If they turn down your offer or swiftly change the subject, say, “I’m here to listen if you need me.”
Some people prefer to open up online or over text instead of having an in-person conversation. This might be because they want to spend some time alone with their thoughts before talking to someone else, or they may feel embarrassed if you’ve seen them crying. Others find it easier to express themselves in writing rather than during a face-to-face conversation.
If your friend decides to open up to you, whether in person or by text, careful listening helps you understand their situation better. You need to understand them first to be able to comfort them effectively.
Here are a few tips that will help you listen well:
- Give your friend plenty of time to talk. They may need time to calm down before they feel able to tell you what’s wrong. If your friend wants to speak in person, but it’s impossible for you to have a meaningful conversation—for example, if you have an urgent meeting to attend—set up a time to meet or talk on the phone as soon as possible.
If they’ve sent you a message but you can’t send a meaningful reply, quickly explain the situation and tell them when they can expect to hear from you.
- If you are talking face to face, use nonverbal signals to encourage your friend to keep talking. Nod when they tell you something significant to show that you have been listening. Lean forward slightly when they speak.
- Reflect what your friend tells you using your own words. For example, if your friend has just discovered their spouse is cheating and they think it’s time to end the marriage, you might say, “So it sounds like you’re considering divorce?” This signals you have been listening and gives your friend a chance to correct you if you’ve misunderstood them.
- Don’t jump to conclusions. Try not to make any assumptions about how your friend feels. Do not say, for example, “You seem to be taking it really well! Most people cry a lot after a breakup.” They may be struggling to conceal their real emotions, or they may be numb from shock.
- Give prompts if your friend is struggling to find the right words. For example, gently saying, “And then what happened?” can help your friend focus on telling their story. Don’t overdo it; you want to avoid bombarding your friend with questions.
See our guide to improving your social intelligence for tips on how to be a better listener.
When you empathize with someone, you try to see things from their perspective and recognize their feelings. Empathy can help you understand what kind of support your friend needs.
Here’s how to show empathy when you are listening to a friend:
- Show that you understand how your friend feels by summarizing what you’ve heard. For example, you might say, “It sounds like you’re really frustrated right now.” Go beyond reflecting their words back to them; try to find the emotion behind their statements. It can also help to look at their body language for clues. For example, if they appear calm but they are tapping one foot, they might be feeling anxious. You could say, “You look pretty calm, but you’re tapping your foot; are you worried?”
- Try not to judge your friend. You might not understand their choices or their emotions, but it can help to remind yourself that in their shoes, you may feel and act the same way. Avoid making critical remarks.
- If you aren’t sure exactly how your friend is feeling, ask. Sometimes, direct questions are the best way to understand how someone feels. For example, you could ask, “How did you feel when that happened?”
- Recognize emotions respectfully. For example, you could say, “You’ve got a lot to deal with right now,” or “It’s come as a massive shock, hasn’t it?”
Hugs can be comforting in stressful situations, but a few people don’t like physical contact with others. It’s best to ask first, especially if you’ve never hugged your friend before. Say, “Would you like a hug?”
Research shows that showing a friend acceptance, affection, and love can help comfort them.
You could say something like, “I care about you very much, and I want to help you get through this,” or “You’re my best friend. I’m here for you.”
Do not say anything that gives your friend the impression their feelings aren’t important to you.
For example, here are some phrases that could come across as belittling:
- “Well, it could be worse.”
- “You’ll soon get over it. It’s not really a big deal.”
- “Don’t worry, most people just adapt to living with diabetes.”
Do not tell your friend to “cheer up” or “smile.” When someone is in physical pain or hurting emotionally, being told to “focus on the positives” often feels insulting and can make them feel invalidated. Take extra care on how you talk to a friend who is clinically depressed. For example, telling them to try changing their attitude or look on the bright side could come across as patronizing.
It’s generally better to avoid asking someone why they feel a particular way because this could come across as judgmental and invalidating. You may be puzzled by your friend’s reaction to bad news or even think that their state of mind is irrational, but it’s important to remember that people respond differently to difficult situations.
For example, if your friend is getting divorced and they are upset, it wouldn’t be appropriate to ask, “Why are you upset? Your ex is a horrible person, and you’ll be better off single!” It would be more helpful to validate their emotions and give them a chance to feel heard. You could say, “Divorce is really difficult. No wonder you’re upset.”
Remember that people who are hurting emotionally can feel several strong emotions at the same time. They may quickly swing from one emotion to another.
For example, someone with family problems might feel angry, sad, and scared all at once if one of their relatives keeps getting into trouble with the law. They may criticize their relative’s actions while expressing sadness that the relationship has broken down.
It’s OK to be honest if you can’t find the right words of comfort. However, staying completely silent might not feel right either. One solution is to simply acknowledge that you don’t have any suitable words or have any personal understanding of what they are going through.
Here are some examples of things you can say when you aren’t sure how to respond to a friend when they are upset:
- “I don’t know what to say, but I am here for you.”
- “I can’t think of the right words, but I care about you and will listen whenever you want to talk.”
- “I don’t know what it’s like to live with bipolar disorder, but I’m here to support you.”
Depending on the situation, offering your friend practical help along with emotional support can be comforting. If they know you are willing to help out, they may feel less overwhelmed.
However, your friend may not know exactly what they need from you, or they might be uncertain what you can offer them and decide that it’s easier not to ask for anything at all.
It can help to spell out exactly what you can do for them. Try not to make general offers like, “If you need anything, just let me know,” which is kind but vague. Before making an offer, make sure you can follow through on it.
Here are some examples of how you could offer practical support:
- “Would you like me to pick up some groceries for the weekend?”
- “Would you like me to walk your dog in the evenings this week?”
- “Would you like me to pick the kids up from school today?”
- “If you need a lift to the clinic, I’d be happy to take you if you don’t feel like driving.”
If your friend is very distressed and can’t think clearly, tell them to call or message you if they think of anything you can do for them. You can also consider trying to convince your friend to go to therapy.
You might get the impression that your friend is worried about inconveniencing you. If so, phrase your offer in a casual way that implies that helping them out is no big deal.
Here are some examples of ways you can offer help in a low-key, casual way:
- Instead of saying, “Shall I come and cut your lawn?” you could say, “I finally got my lawnmower running again, and it needs more use. Can I come and cut your lawn?”
- Instead of saying, “Would you like me to make you some dinner?” you could say, “I tried out a new casserole recipe, and I’ve made far too much. Can I bring some over?”
Platitudes are clichéd statements that have been used so often that they no longer have any real meaning. Some people don’t mind them, but platitudes can come across as insensitive and robotic. In general, it’s best to avoid them.
Here are some common platitudes to avoid:
- [After a death] “He’s in a better place now.”
- [After a sudden redundancy] “Everything happens for a reason. It will work out.”
- [After a breakup] “There are plenty more fish in the sea.”
When a friend is going through a tough time, you might be tempted to tell them stories about similar experiences you’ve had. For example, if they have lost a parent, you may automatically start comparing their situation to the last time you lost a loved one.
But when your friend is anxious or upset, you could come across as insensitive or self-centered if you start talking about yourself.
Do not say, “I know exactly how you feel,” because research shows that even if you’re just trying to show empathy, your friend probably won’t find this kind of statement very comforting. It’s better to focus on your friend’s specific situation and how they feel in the present moment.
When a friend is suffering, it’s tempting to jump in with advice or solutions. It’s natural to try suggesting things that you think might make them feel better. But if a friend is telling you about a problem or an event that has upset them, they probably want to vent or talk about their emotions before thinking about their next steps.
Research shows that unsolicited advice can come across as unhelpful and may cause the person in need further stress. Wait until your friend asks for your input before you suggest solutions.
It’s common for friends to use humor when comforting each other. Research shows that humor can work well as long as the person in distress perceives it as well-timed and funny.
But you need to think carefully before making a joke when consoling a friend because humor can backfire. If it goes wrong, your friend might feel as though you are belittling their pain. It’s not always possible to predict what someone else will find amusing, and it’s not always easy to tell when the moment is right to make a joke or light-hearted remark.
As a general rule, do not make jokes when your friend is upset unless you know them very well and feel confident that they will appreciate it.
Some people prefer to use blunt, factual, or medical terms. Others like to use softer or euphemistic language. Certain words or phrases may upset someone who is going through a crisis. It’s usually best to mirror your friend.
For example, if your friend has had a miscarriage, they might prefer to use the term “loss” when talking about it.
Some people like to talk about their problems. Others prefer to think about something else and talk about completely unrelated topics when they are stressed, broken hearted, or in pain. Follow your friend’s lead.
For example, if they want to talk about their favorite memories of a relative who just died, give them the opportunity to reminisce. But if they are determined to talk about ordinary or trivial things, go along with it.
You don’t want your friend to feel as though you are pushing your beliefs onto them when they are vulnerable. If you are both members of the same faith, it is probably OK to suggest that you pray, meditate, or carry out a comforting ritual together. But if you come from different religious backgrounds, it’s usually best to avoid mentioning religion or spirituality.
Allow your friend to share their news and open up to other people at their own pace. For example, if your friend has recently lost a pet, they may not have told all their friends and family members, so do not post a message of support on their social media where everyone can see it.
It might take your friend a long time to process and recover from a crisis or tragedy. Check in with them regularly. As a general rule, reach out no less often than you would normally. Don’t avoid your friend. Although it’s good to respect their privacy, most people appreciate ongoing support.
Anniversaries and special occasions are often difficult after a loss. Your friend may appreciate a supportive message on these days. Keep your message short and, if you are able and willing to support them, let them know they can reach out to you.
Here are some examples of messages you could send:
- [On a deceased relative’s birthday] “I’m thinking of you today. If you need to talk, just call me.”
- [At New Year shortly after a divorce] “Just wanted to check in and let you know that you’re in my thoughts today. I’m here to listen if you want to talk.”