Purdue News

February 1997

Conversation an active element in comforting

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. -- When you're upset, putting the hurt into words is probably the best thing you can do to get over it, says a Purdue University expert on communication.

"Emotional support is not something you do or a strategy that you employ. Rather it happens during the act of talking to each other," says Brant. R. Burleson, professor of communication.

Burleson studies the effects of what people say. People know that talking about problems helps, but they may not know why. He says knowing how people become distressed is key to understanding how they are comforted.

"The source of emotional distress doesn't lie in some external state of affairs," Burleson says. "Rather people become upset when they believe events are in conflict with their personal goals and well-being." Thus, he says, overcoming distress requires re-evaluating circumstances in a more positive or realistic light.

"There are no verbal 'magic bullets' when it comes to comforting others," Burleson says. "People mistakenly believe that if they say the right words, they can make others feel better." He says it's not what you say that makes the difference; it's when what you say causes people to reflect on their situation and reappraise it.

He says that when people talk about the things that are troubling them it helps clarify the situation to themselves as well as others. "Discussing a traumatic event helps the distressed person get some distance on it -- reappraise it -- and integrate new perspectives on it within a broader view of life," he says.

Although there are no formulas for conducting comforting conversations, Burleson says some elements do apply:

CONTACT: Burleson, (765) 494-3321; e-mail, xwxf@vm.cc.purdue.edu

Purdue News Service: (765) 494-2096; e-mail, purduenews@purdue.edu

* To the Purdue News and Photos Page