Let’s start with a quick quiz:

Question 1: Your spouse just got fired. Do you (a) sit quietly and listen to how it all came down, or (b) suggest that he look at the situation from another perspective?

Question 2: Your office mate just told you she had sex with her ex and is now unhappily pregnant with twins. Do you (a) make an inappropriate joke, or (b) ask her if she has considered her options?

Question 3:  Your best friend is avoiding your calls and texts.  Do you (a) keep up the barrage of contact reminding her that she’s being disrespectful, or (b) offer her some space and tell her you’ll reach out in a couple of days?

Some of these options are obvious, while others are subtle.  What these options have in common, however, is that they’re all viable depending upon the circumstances.  There’s no one-size-fits-all when it comes to comforting someone else.

Providing support requires finesse.  The type of support depends not only on the situation, but also on the person.  My friend Christy is not comfortable with physical gestures, so giving her a hug when her beloved poodle died was not an option for me.  The better choice was for me to ask to see photos of her pup.  By way of another example, when my long-distance friend was considering ending her marriage, I didn’t go into Divorce Mediator mode (requiring great restraint on my part).  Instead, I asked her to tell me what led up to this decision. 

While words matter, time and place are equally significant.  And that may require some strategic planning on your part. Suggesting that you and your partner go out for pizza so that you can have a deep discussion in a noisy, crowded restaurant may not be the best option under the circumstances.  Talking heart-to-heart with your pregnant co-worker in the office lunchroom may likewise not be such a great idea.  You’re smart.  You can figure out the best time and place for significant communication.

And what if they’re not willing to talk?

Gestures of comfort don’t have to include deep and heart-wrenching conversation.  Sometimes a smile, a note of encouragement, and of course, a hug, might be the more appropriate solution, at least in the moment.  

Some people need alone time to process their feelings before they are ready and willing to articulate them, even to the person closest to them.  If you sense that’s the case, the most comforting thing you might do is to back off.  Simply ask, “what can I do?” Or tell them, “I’ll check back in with you tomorrow.”  And although it might be easier for you to back off and wait, I would urge you to gently reach out over and over again, if for no other reason than to show you care.

Call it empathy, sympathy, or compassion, supporting an upset partner or friend starts and ends with kindness. 

And soup. (If you need the recipe for my mom’s chicken soup, let me know.)