How to Comfort a Friend (9 Strategies)

A friend comforting another friend while sitting on a mountain overlooking the desert.

In this article I will teach you how to comfort a friend, family member, or colleague who is suffering, upset, and in need of your help.

You are here because you want to know what say so you can give someone the emotional support and comfort they need when they're in a bad place. Let’s get started.

We all have friends that are suffering from sadness or depression. They may face one out of a million possible hardships. They may be sick with a hopeless diagnosis. Perhaps there was a death in their family. Maybe they were fired; maybe they went through a breakup. It could also be the bad stuff that happens every day.  I have had my day ruined by waiting in traffic.

But in each of those cases, you can offer your support by comforting your friend. There are specific strategies that social science research has shown to work really great. I will take you through these step by step.

1. Comfort a friend by offering support.

The first strategy you want to try is to express your willingness to offer support. Tell your friend you want to help. Say something along the lines of I want to help you get through this. That simple message can be helpful.

2. And tell your friend that they are a great person.

Express your positive opinion of the person you are comforting. Tell them that you like them. They may be feeling worthless, so you want to tell them good things about themselves. Try:

  • You know I care about you so much.

  •  I love you so much.

  •  I'm just so concerned about you.

  •  You're such a good and kind person.

Street art that says "be sweet."

Clearly express your concern, care and interest. Make sure they know you are interested in what is happening to them. Tell them that you can see something is troubling them. Say, I'm so concerned about you and you know how much I care about you.

Make sure that they know you are available. Your presence is probably the most important resource you can give them. Straight up tell them:

I'm here for you. If you need to talk, I'm here for you. You can call me, you can text me, you can come on over whenever you want. I'm here, I'm available if you need someone to talk to.

You want to express your solidarity with the person you are comforting. Let them know they will not go through this terrible thing alone. I sometimes tell people I care about that I can't control the weather, I can't control the seas. The ocean might be very stormy, but you're not in the boat alone. We're in the boat together.

Wouldn’t you feel better if you heard that a close friend, family member, or someone that loves you has your back. Essentially, you are trying to affirm your friend.

3. Acknowledge their suffering.

The next strategy is to acknowledge and offer condolence for the bad things that are happening.

All you need to say is,

  • I'm so sorry this is happening to you.

  • I know how much this meant to you.

  • I know how much you loved that person. I know how much the relationship meant to you.

  • I know how much that promotion meant to you.

Acknowledge the depth of the pain and sorrow that your friend or family member is experiencing.

4. Comfort your friend by affirming their feelings.

The next strategy is to legitimize the other person's feelings.

Tell them that their feelings are acceptable and okay. A lot of the time, when we are upset, we are not sure if our emotion is justified. We question whether our feelings are valid. It is very comforting when people tell you that your feeling are appropriate.

A man suffering and depressed sitting on a coach while he holds his head.

You want to emphasize that the other person's feelings are reasonable, normal, and appropriate. You could say something like, You're frightened. Anyone would be in this situation. This is a scary situation.

Acknowledge their plight so they feel free to talk openly about the bad thing they experience. Acknowledge their plight by saying: It sucks that you worked so hard for so long towards your goal.

5. Absolve your friend of blame.

People often feel that a negative outcome is their fault. They believe that they're entirely to blame for their own bad circumstances. Sometimes that is true; but taking personal responsibility is a long-term battle. When you are comforting someone, you do not want to tell them that. Absolve them of blame. Say:

You did nothing to deserve this. There is no reason for you to feel bad or guilty about how you are reacting. It is not your fault.

Reassure the person that it is okay to be emotional. Create a space for them to express their feelings. Keep repeating that it is okay for the person to express his/her feelings.

Street art that says, "trust your struggle."

Some people’s parents taught them that some feelings are acceptable, and some should be hidden. They enforced a policy that allowed the expression of some feelings while it rejected and bottled up other emotions.

As you comfort someone, let them know that you are totally open. They should feel that they can express any emotion they want. Say things like,

  • There are no right or wrong feelings.

  • We can't control how we feel.

  • No matter how you're feeling, it's okay with me; I'll still love you, I won't judge you.

6. Help your friend recall the story.

People begin to recover when they begin to re-appraise their own situation. One way we can encourage this process is to make them feel comfortable elaborating on their feelings. Ask the person to tell you the story behind their feelings.

Why are you feeling the way you are?

Recounting the story can help people come to terms with their own feelings; hopefully they will begin to understand their feelings. It is incredible how often we fail to understand our own feelings.

Sometimes you will need to talk to a close friend before you know what they are feeling. In that situation, try to encourage the person to elaborate on their feelings and recount the story behind them.

Say something like,

Can you tell me how you've been feeling? I'm interested to learn how you've been feeling lately.

Try asking open-ended questions that will help them assess their feelings

  • How have those feelings of anxiety been? Have they gotten worse?

  • Are you feeling better?

  • Are you still as sad as you were last time we talked?

Additional examples include,

  • How are you feeling since we talked?

  • How are those of feelings of sadness?

  • What's the worst part about what you're going through now?

7. Mirror your friend’s body language and ideas.

One strategy you should try when you comfort people is to reflect and restate what you hear.

A woman holding a mirror in front of their face.

Observe what people are telling you. Consider how they present themselves. Watch out for their non-verbal behavior. Listen to what they say. Mirror these behaviors; doing so will create a sense of solidarity.

Your actions will tell them that you are listening to what they are saying they will know you're paying attention. Your attentiveness will be comforting.

For example, imagine the person you are comforting just finished saying, "I'm so sad. I don't think I will ever get over it."

Say something like,

From what I can tell, you're really struggling to deal with the sadness you have felt ever since your relationship ended.  It seems like you are not sure how you will ever get over it.

You have just reflected their feelings. If you do it carefully and pay attention to their expressions, it won't sound like a gimmick, a trick, or a game. The person will feel heard.

8. Offer suggestions about how they feel.

Try to encourage elaboration by offering hypotheses about how the person might be feeling. As I said before, people often have no idea what they are feeling, or why they feel the way they do. Try to explore the issue with them.

Be sincere and friendly, but do not be afraid to say something bold. Try saying like,

Could it be you feel guilty that you didn't do more to help your friend when she was sick?

By forcing your friend to question the source of their feelings, you will help them start to assess what went wrong. Even if your suggestions are way off the mark, you have helped the person. If you are wrong say something along the lines of,

Oh, I got that wrong, didn't I? I thought you felt that way.

They won’t be mad at you if you sound sincere and authentic.

9. Employ back channel cues.

Finally, you should try to use what communication theorists call back channel cues. Examples include,

Yeah, mmn hmmm, oh, mmn hmmm, yeah.

You give the person these signals to let them know that you are still present and listening. This accomplishes the same objectives as super open-ended questions. You can do either, but if you choose the questions avoid making the person get the sense that you are interrogating them. Try,

  • Well what happened next?

  • How did that make you feel?

  • What is the hardest part of this whole situation?

Each of these invite elaborations. As a summary,

  1. You want them to tell their story.

  2. Focus on their emotions.

  3. Affirm your concern, affirm that you've heard them, affirm that their emotions are acceptable.

  4. Help the person you are comforting to explore their feelings.

Those now you know how to comfort a friend using 9 different strategies.