When a friend is dealing with a breakup, a job from hell, or the loss a loved one, your natural reaction is to cheer her up, right? But rather than saying, “Everything will be okay,” a better approach may be to be a Negative Nancy along with her, according to a new study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.
The study found that people who are feeling down in the dumps would rather their loved ones provide “negative validation.” That means acknowledge that your friend’s feeling like crud, instead of trying to cheer her up, says Andrea Bonior, Ph.D., a licensed clinical psychologist and author of The Friendship Fix.
Of course, this doesn’t give you free reign to add tons of fuel to the fire of negativity. Instead, follow these steps to make sure you stay in your friends' good graces while also cheering her up the right way.
1. Listen up! “We too often focus on what we should say that we forget that what we’re supposed to listen,” says Bonior. “When a friend tells you her bad news, you can say, ‘I’m sorry,’ but the next step is to ask how she really feels—and truly listen.” For instance, if she tells you she just lost her job, she may actually have mixed feelings and feel kind of relieved, or she could be in a total panic about losing her mortgage on her house. Figuring out how she really feels is the first step, then adjust your response accordingly.
2. Empathize, but not too much. “You should validate the fact that she’s feeling down, without validating the hopelessness of the situation,” says Bonior. “It’s the difference between saying, ‘Wow, I can understand how this is getting you down. I’m so sorry to hear that,’ and ‘Yeah, it is going to be really hard to get another job without a college degree.’” Also, be careful not to overuse the phrase, “I know how you feel." If she’s getting a divorce, lost her job, and her father just received a cancer diagnosis, can you truly relate? Probably not.
3. Know when to take the next step. If your friend has been feeling down for weeks or months, keeps having the same conversations, and she’s not moving forward, it’s time to speak up. “Be honest and say, ‘I feel like I’m not helping you, and I worry that you need more than what I can give you,’” suggests Bonior. That’s a nice segue to say ask her if she’s thought about talking to a counselor or therapist." And of course, if your friend has been down for weeks, and you notice red flags (not getting out of bed, talking about suicide, or a change in lifestyle), seek help immediately.