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Communicating Support

May 4, 2016

Everyone has been in a situation where a partner, friend, or family member needs support. We all want to help and we all use different kinds of strategies to support one another. Department of Communication Studies Professor Susanne Jones is determined to understand what communication strategies are beneficial and supportive to our friends and loved ones.

Jones’ interest in supportive communication emerged during her first year of graduate school at Indiana University in 1996. Having experienced several incidents of support she thought were not so helpful, she wondered what makes for more and less effective support behaviors. She came across research by Brant Burleson, a professor at Purdue University who passed away in 2010. His work sparked her interest in examining supportive communication. Based on Burleson’s work, Jones learned that “good” support consists of messages that legitimize and validate one’s emotions. Burleson called these supportive messages “person-centered” messages, because they put the upset person front and center, and let that person know that his or her emotions are valid and important. Jones wondered what influences people’s abilities to offer different kinds of support in response to distressed close others.  She wanted to gain a closer look at what makes for a beneficial supportive message.

Through the use of experimental methods Jones began to examine whether nonverbal behaviors, such as direct eye contact, forward lean, and facial empathy (e. g., expressing pain through facial expressions when the upset person talks about something upsetting) can provide added benefits to person-centered messages—and they do. She found that people prefer to talk to someone who expresses care and concern verbally and nonverbally. Surprisingly though, what supporters say to convey help is far more important than how they say it. Jones suspects that this is so because when people experience distressing emotions, they actually are trying to gain a different perspective about what caused these negative emotions. This coping strategy is called cognitive reappraisal. Jones is examining how supportive messages can encourage this coping strategy.

Jones currently conducts research in examining the actual process of how people use person-centered messages throughout a conversation to facilitate reappraisals. So far, she and her colleagues have gathered data from more than 600 conversations and found that people use an array of person-centered messages, and not all them are always highly person-centered. Jones explains, “It’s not that people don’t want to be supportive; they just use all kinds of communication strategies to help others. And it’s just so difficult to see a person we care about suffer.” Together with her colleague, Professor Graham Bodie at Louisiana State University, she is currently examining these conversations for the ways in which supporters articulate more and less person-centered messages. Jones is also collecting data through September 2016. If you want to participate in her study, please contact her at jones344@umn.edu.

So, the next time you find yourself with an upset partner, think about validation and listening skills to provide comfort, because another “I’m sorry” may not suffice to help your friend feel better!

This story was written by an undergraduate student account executive in CLAgency. Meet the team.