We have all played the role of comforter at times in our lives. There are a number of body language considerations as we perform this important function.
The first rule when trying to comfort another person is to put on your figurative “listening hat.” Keep your ears open and your mouth shut.
Listen more than talk
It is annoying for a hurting person to get a few sentences into describing her pain only to hear, “Oh I have experienced that as well; my aunt did that to me just last month.”
If you are to provide comfort, try to have your output to input ratio be something closer to 10%, at least until the person has had the opportunity to tell the full story.
Use reflective listening where you let the other person know you are following the points closely with your following skills and an occasional natural reflection to indicate your understanding.
There is a caveat here. Most people believe they use reflective listening well, but they are actually clumsy with too many or poorly-timed reflections. Rather than help, poor listening actually makes matters worse by annoying the other person.
Touching the other person is often a way to provide some comfort, but obviously there are a host of caveats about using that technique. You have to use judgment and consider whether the other person would rather not be touched.
One possible way to analyze the situation is a derivative from the Golden Rule. Would you want to be touched by the other person if the roles were reversed? This idea is far from bullet proof, but it may provide some insight.
Touching may be effective with family or very close friends, but be extremely conservative with touching in a professional setting. Basically, don’t do it if you want to be safe.
Also, observe the overall body language as you approach the hurting person. If the individual pulls back, even in a slight way, it would be better to not use the comfort of touch, at least at that particular time.
This is not a time for the comforter to spout out platitudes of what might seem helpful to him or her. That kind of advice may be appropriate at some future time, but when the individual is hurting, he or she is in no mood for a sermon.
Seek to understand and empathize
By listening intently and asking questions, you can get the idea of what is causing the problem, but it is best if the hurting person comes up with what to do about it. Sometimes in an effort to be helpful, people will become prescriptive, and that often comes across as being pushy. It is better to ask occasional questions for clarification.
Ask open ended questions
Try to avoid asking a question that can be answered by a simple “yes” or “no.” For example, if you ask “Has this happened to you more than once in the past week?” the person could just say “yes.” Instead ask, “How often have you experienced this, and what did it feel like?”
Let the other person “come to you”
It is obvious that the other person needs some comfort, and since you are there it is only natural to try and help. Let the other person come to you when he or she is ready for your help.
Playing the role of comforter is essential, and we have all done it at times. Recognize that to do this task successfully requires great tact and skill. Take your cues from the person who is hurting, and let that person have the floor most of the time.
This is a part in a series of articles on “Body Language.” The entire series can be viewed on https://www.leadergrow.com/articles/categories/35-body-language or on this blog.
Bob Whipple, MBA, CPLP, is a consultant, trainer, speaker, and author in the areas of leadership and trust. He is the author of four books: 1.TheTrust Factor: Advanced Leadership for Professionals (2003), 2. Understanding E-Body Language: Building Trust Online (2006), 3. Leading with Trust is Like Sailing Downwind (2009), and 4. Trust in Transition: Navigating Organizational Change (2014). In addition, he has authored over 600 articles and videos on various topics in leadership and trust. Bob has many years as a senior executive with a Fortune 500 Company and with non-profit organizations.