Q&A: The Art of Comforting

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Man and woman on a couch, relationship issue

With research suggesting that today’s college students may be 40% less empathetic than their predecessors of just a few decades earlier, I was delighted to come across a book that provides useful tips on kind behavior. Sometimes, an apparent failure to care may not reflect actual indifference but can instead mask a lack of knowledge about how to help. I spoke with Val Walker, a grief counselor, about her book, The Art of Comforting: What to Say and Do for People in Distress.

Why did you decide to write this book?

I wrote a book that I was looking for. I was a bereavement coordinator at a hospital and I was in charge of putting together research for the library. It stood out to me that though there were lots of books about grieving and death and how to cope, there was a real dearth of books on how to comfort others who were grieving.

Also, I found that loss isn’t just about bereavement. There was a real need for this book because [there is] a wider range of losses — of a home or a job, for example — so I wanted to write a book that would really be something everyone could apply to anyone going through a hard time. [At the time,] I was going through a divorce. And my oldest best friend Morna came across from Scotland and spent a week with me. She was able to give me her time and her incredibly good listening. I had a breakthrough that comfort needs to be there before you are ready to heal.

(More on Time.com: Teaching Empathy to Fight Bullying)

It seems like it’s kind of a lost art. People don’t seem to know what to do or say when others are hurting.

Yes. There are myths and stereotypes that can make us feel not qualified. We think we have to be Oprah or Mother Theresa or Princess Diana. I wanted to help us restore our confidence by showing all the little ordinary ways you can comfort someone.

So what are some of those qualities?

The most import of all qualities, the top thing is to be present. You can be as kind and loving as anybody since Jesus Christ but if you cannot be present while you are being kind, it’s a waste. You have to work at being really there. You’re not going to be distracted and multi-tasking.

The next quality is empathy. That would be just feeling with someone even if you haven’t been through the same experience. Another is just being willing to acknowledge that person’s experience. You can actually reflect back to the person: it sounds like you’re going through [whatever they’ve said they are experiencing]. Also, to just acknowledge [the loss]. I heard your father died, I’m so sorry.

Sometimes people try to fix everything.

That’s why really acknowledging [what the person feels] is important. A lot of times we think we have to cheer them up and make them feel better, but [what people often need is] acceptance and acknowledgment.

Or people don’t know what to say, so they don’t say anything.

We tend to avoid comforting people because we’re so afraid of saying the wrong thing. What I’ve been trying to help with in the book, even if you don’t know what to say, just acknowledge it, say I’m sorry this happened. Even just a minute or two can make a difference.

What are some other mistakes that people make?

One of the most important things not to say is “Here’s what you need to do, you gotta’ be strong, be positive.” For folks who can’t muster up those feelings, it makes them feel worse. It’s better to say I believe in you instead of have faith or believe in yourself.

Also, we often say, you’ll get over it, you’ll get through. It’s better to say, “Take the time you need to get over it,” so they don’t feel rushed. It’s really comforting when people don’t pressure you in any way. Another thing not to say is “Oh you think your situation is bad, you should see what the Katrina survivors went through.” Comparing somebody’s pain to some else’s is not going to work.

You write that it’s also good to be specific when you offer help.

You can say I’m here for you if you want to talk to me but it’s even better to offer a time. Instead of saying call me if you need anything, say “I could call you Monday night.” Something specific makes it seem like you mean it, that’s really important to convey. Also be reliable on follow through. It’s terrible for a person who is grieving or having an awful time to think, “Should I call or not?”

People are also afraid that if they offer to help, they will be overwhelmed by someone’s needs.

When you offer something specific, you’re setting boundaries too. That’s another reason that people are scared to be comforting. We’re scared of getting sucked in.

Why do we seem to be losing the ability to comfort each other?

There are different reasons for that. One of them is that 100-200 years ago, we were so much closer in households to people who were sick or dying, they were right there. I don’t want to blame the internet but [while] technology can get us connected, it might erode some of the more nonverbal comforting skills and activities. A lot of comforting comes through eye contact, those little human signals of caring. We might really get out of practice with that kind of language of comforting, that communication that is 80% nonverbal.

How can someone who is shy be comforting?

There are so many ways to be comforting even if you’re not a talker. You can send a card, offer to pick up groceries or mail. Often, it’s really just showing up. Again, it goes back to being specific. Animals, by the way, also help. If you’re sitting in the room with a dog or a cat, you don’t need to say anything, you just throw their toys. They can help cut through a lot of language we struggle with. Just by how a cat curls up in ball says it all, you can just enjoy that.

Related Links:

See more of TIME’s Mind Reading Series

Healthland’s Guide to Life 2011

<a href=”http://www.aolhealth.com/2011/01/03/brain-new-years-resolution/ “>Can’t Stick With a Resolution? Blame Your Brain

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