SOMEONE YOU KNOW feels bad and you want
to help. I like that about you. Youve probably already
discovered that sometimes when you try to help, it doesnt
help, even though you have good intentions and try really hard.
Making someone feel better isnt always as easy or straightforward
as you might expect. So you want to know: What really helps?
Luckily a researcher, Brant Burleson, has spent his lifetime looking
into that question. When you try to help someone, you have only
two choices: You can do a physical action that helps, or you
can listen in a way that helps. These are your options for making
someone feel better.
Burleson realized early on that for a physical
action to really help someone, most of the time you first have
to talk to the person and listen to find out what they
need. So ultimately, in making someone feel better, you only
need to focus on one thing: Listening well.
And after a lifetime of doing experiments
himself and studying the experiments of other researchers, Burleson
discovered six practical and effective insights into how to listen
in a way that truly helps. If your intention is making someone
feel better, the research says the following will consistently
benefit the other person:
1. Make it clear up front that you really
want to help. Oddly enough, many people miss this and
their earnest attempts to help are interpreted as manipulation
or worse. Why? Because when someone is in distress, the way they
perceive the world is often distorted and they more easily misperceive
your intentions. So make it plain as day that you want to help.
This is the starting point of making someone feel better.
2. But by saying you want to help, you
can almost immediately get into trouble because in their misery,
they can interpret your desire to help as if youre implying
they are incompetent and cant handle things on their own.
So the second thing to make sure you do when listening to someone
in distress is let the person know they are in control.
They are in charge and you are their assistant in this matter.
Make it clear you think of them as a competent, capable person
capable of thinking through their problem and capable
of handling their situation. This is a key factor in making someone
Also do not in any way be
critical of the person. Even the mildest criticism can be upsetting
when someone already feels bad. Be very careful you refrain from
even implying any disapproval or faultfinding. Making
someone feel bad is counterproductive when making someone feel
3. Show intense interest and concern about
her situation the circumstances making her feel bad. Get
the person to describe what happened in detail, but do this in
a way that doesnt sound like an interrogation. Do not try
to hurry this process. In fact, try to slow it down.
Try to prevent her from making a long story short. You want to
know all about the situation and what led up to it, and what
happened afterwards, and what the other person said, etc. Lots
of detail is the key to making someone feel better.
Burleson found it helps a person who is
feeling bad to have an opportunity to sort through his situation
and his feelings about that situation to have time to
really think about it. Thats what really helps. When making
someone feel better, thats what to focus on. The reason
good listening helps is because it gives the person exactly what
he needs: The opportunity to think it all through.
4. Try your best to sincerely empathize.
You may think, How can you be so stupid as to get yourself
in this mess? Youll have to find a way to get around
your own judgment
and really and truly empathize. Everyone has his own quirks and
hang-ups and sometimes it gets him in trouble. Accept that about
Just realize now he is in this mess,
and try to sincerely understand his feelings and empathize with
And communicate your understanding carefully.
Make sure you dont say things like, I know what you
mean or I know how you feel. You may not.
Qualify your statements for accuracy. I think I know what
you mean or I can imagine how you must feel.
This seemingly minor point is a key factor in making someone
feel better with your listening. It helps him trust you. It helps
keep him from rejecting the things you say. It makes you more
5. Make it clear youre available
to listen, no matter what the person says. Sometimes she will
say things you want to argue with. Disagreeing will not help,
no matter how obviously wrong she is. And sometimes even
with a clear intention of making someone feel better youll
want to tell a similar story. Restrain yourself. Encourage the
person to talk, and keep your own input to a minimum, at least
until she asks for your input, and maybe not even then.
But the point is, don't abandon the
person. Make it clear you are with her and available to her
for whatever she needs. Expressing this will really help someone
in distress. It allows her to relax and speak freely. When she
can speak freely, she will think more clearly.
6. Demonstrate youre on the person's
side but not by criticizing anyone else. Burleson found
that any kind of criticism you make even to agree with
the other person about someone else doesnt help.
But do what you can to make it obvious that no matter what, youre
with the person who wants to feel better. Youre on his
Making someone feel better is much easier
when you know what works and what doesnt. Follow the six
suggestions above. No matter what is distressing the person,
this way of listening is scientifically proven to help.
Read more: Burleson