Comforting communication encompasses the verbal and nonverbal messages that people use when trying to reduce others’ emotional anguish. Thus, comforting represents a strategic communication activity that has the primary goal of alleviating another’s emotional distress; it may also aim to enhance the other’s self-esteem, facilitate the other’s coping, and assist the other’s problem-solving in a troublesome situation. Comforting is a form of behavioral empathy or social support and is usually studied as a communicative activity carried out by laypersons in everyday situations; however, professionals (teachers, pastors, nurses, counselors, therapists) and para-professionals (bartenders, hairdressers) also engage in comforting communication.
Functions And Strategies Of Comforting
Typically, people seek and receive comfort from intimates in their social networks, especially friends, family members, and romantic partners; neighbors and co-workers may also be important sources of emotional support. Research indicates that comfort (or emotional support) is an important provision of close personal relationships and helps to maintain these relationships, with people evaluating their partners for the quality of the emotional support given. When provided effectively, emotional support can assist with the processing of negative emotions, reduce affective distress, foster functional coping, maintain self-esteem, improve performance, and enhance the quality of social relationships. Moreover, by reducing potentially harmful physiological processes that often accompany emotional distress, effective comforting may protect mental and physical health, reduce susceptibility to disease, and decrease morbidity and mortality rates.
Unfortunately, many comforting efforts intended to provide emotional support are not effective. Indeed, research has documented a fairly high incidence of support attempts that fail, “cold comfort,” or “miscarried helping” these messages, however well intended, are ineffective and may actually make the recipient feel worse rather than better. These findings motivated research focused on identifying the features of more and less effective comforting strategies.
This research indicated that highly person-centered verbal comforting strategies, in contrast to their low person-centered counterparts, generally are perceived as most sensitive and effective and do the best job of reducing emotional distress. These verbal strategies acknowledge, contextualize, and legitimize the feelings and perspective of the distressed other and encourage the other to express, explore, and elaborate his or her feelings. Low person-centered verbal strategies typically minimize or ignore the distressed other’s feelings, tell the other what to feel or do, and may even criticize the other’s feelings and perspective.
In addition, comforting efforts that provide face support are experienced as more helpful than those that ignore the face wants of recipients. Facework uses politeness forms that support the recipient’s desires to be viewed positively and autonomously. Facework supporting the desire to be viewed positively expresses affirming feelings toward, or evaluations of, the recipient and his or her actions. These devices include statements of positive regard, admiration for the courage or effort shown by the target, esteem, understanding of task difficulty, and confidence that the other will prevail. Facework supporting autonomy includes indirect verbal forms such as seeking permission prior to suggesting or advising, expressing deference, offering suggestions indirectly, hedging and qualifying, hinting, describing hypothetical options, and otherwise indicating respect for the target’s autonomy. Nonverbal behaviors may also provide comfort and emotional support.
High immediacy nonverbal behaviors (including forward body lean, touches and pats, hugs, hand-holding, focused looks, and soothing sounds) are experienced as comforting whereas low immediacy nonverbal behaviors (including backward body lean, folded arms, little eye contact, mumbled responses) are experienced as insensitive.
Comforting messages that exhibit high levels of these three features (person-centeredness, face support, and immediacy) typically receive favorable responses from both sexes, members of different cultures, and people with diverse personality traits; these messages also receive favorable responses across an array of support situations. In contrast, comforting messages that exhibit low levels of these features are generally viewed as insensitive, ineffective, and unhelpful, although there are somewhat larger cultural and gender differences in the evaluation of these messages. Recent research suggests that differential responses to comforting messages may be due to variations in recipient ability and motivation to process comforting messages; high ability and motivation to process these messages leads to the sharpest discrimination among them. Numerous demographic, personality, and situational factors appear to influence the recipient’s ability and motivation to process comforting messages (Bodie & Burleson, in press).
Recent scholarship has focused on explaining comforting outcomes by examining the cognitive and affective mechanisms these messages influence. Comforting messages can promote changes in feelings and coping behaviors through multiple mechanisms; these mechanisms differ in the verbal strategies that activate them, their information processing demands, the magnitude and stability of the changes they can produce, and the speed with which they generate changes in feelings and behaviors. For example, distraction produces changes in affect by redirecting the attention of distressed recipient; this mechanism (1) may be activated by drawing the recipient’s attention to some positive feature of the environment, (2) makes minimal information processing demands, (3) is capable of generating large, but typically temporary, changes in affect, and (4) acts relatively quickly. In contrast, cognitive reappraisal produces changes in affect by altering the cognitions (appraisals) that lead to particular emotional states; this mechanism (1) may be activated by inviting the recipient to reflect upon and talk about his or her feelings and the reasons for those feelings, (2) makes large information-processing demands, (3) is capable of generating large, stable changes in affect, and (4) often requires a relatively long time to produce affective changes. Jones and Wirtz (2006) found that highly person-centered comforting messages bring about changes in another’s emotions by encouraging the other to talk about those emotions which, in turn, results in cognitive reappraisals of the problematic situation.
The ability to provide sensitive, effective comfort to the distressed is a fundamental form of communicative competence that requires appropriate knowledge and motivation. Models of comforting communication competence (Burleson 2003; Eisenberg 1998) indicate that skilled comforting requires several abilities, including (1) social perception skills such as cognitive complexity and social perspective taking, through which the helper can acquire knowledge of the distressed person and his or her feelings, goals, and perspective, (2) an understanding of human emotional dynamics (i.e., the circumstances that typically cause and relieve particular emotional states), (3) self-regulation of one’s own emotional response to a distressed other and upsetting circumstances (since strong emotional reactions may interfere with the ability to generate sophisticated messages), and (4) the capacity to generate message plans that efficiently and effectively implement the helper’s goals while adapting to situational contingencies.
In addition, because providing sensitive comfort to distressed others often requires considerable effort, the production of skilled comforting messages mostly occurs when helpers have appropriate motivations (Burleson et al. 2005; Feeney & Collins 2003), including high levels of goal motivation (the helper’s desire to aid the recipient in feeling better), effectance motivation (the helper’s belief that he or she is capable of improving the recipient’s affective state), and normative motivation (the helper’s belief that it is socially appropriate to use particular messages with the recipient). These motivations are influenced by a variety of personality traits (e.g., attachment style, emotional empathy, gender-role orientation, pro-social orientation) and aspects of the comforting situation (e.g., presence of others, sex of the helper and recipient, recipient responsibility for the problematic situation). Women typically have higher levels than men of the abilities and motivations that contribute to skilled comforting, which may be why women are more likely than men to engage in such comforting. In addition, the abilities and motivations that contribute to skilled comforting develop with age, which helps explain why the use of sophisticated comforting efforts increases over the course of childhood and adolescence.
The abilities and motivations that underlie the competence to engage in skilled comforting are cultivated by several aspects of the social environment, especially during childhood and adolescence. In particular, caregiver and peer use of highly person centered comforting messages is associated with children’s use of such messages. Using these messages models the form and content of skilled comforting to the child and facilitates the child’s development of social perception skills by explicitly mentioning feelings, intentions, and motivations. Caregiver talk in other contexts (such as discipline) about feelings and internal states also facilitates development of the skills and orientations that underlie skilled comforting. The reliable provision of emotional support by caregivers, along with their use of positive forms of discipline, also promotes the development of secure attachment, pro-social orientations, and an expressive personality, all of which contribute to the use of skilled comforting messages. Frequent social interaction with peers facilitates the child’s development of good comforting skills; peer interaction creates opportunities for children to exercise their social perception and communication skills and provides feedback to children about the effectiveness of their skills.
Future Directions Of Research
Given the numerous positive consequences that can result from skilled comforting, and the unfortunate fact that many people do not naturally possess the abilities and motivations that underlie the competence to engage in such comforting behavior, it is reasonable to inquire whether the comforting skills of ordinary people can be enhanced through educational or training efforts. Currently, this question cannot be answered directly because few (if any) studies have been conducted that assess the efficacy of efforts to train comforting skills. There is evidence, however, that certain abilities (e.g., social perception skills) and motivations (e.g., concern for others) can be fostered by clinical and educational interventions. Moreover, there is abundant evidence that instruction and coaching can improve a broad range of communication skills (e.g., conversational skills, presentational skills, persuasive skills). Thus, there is ample reason to hypothesize that comforting skills can be improved; one goal for future research lies in developing and evaluating curricula aimed at enhancing these important skills.
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