Listen! Comfort a cornerstone for many female friendships

Most women are less forgiving of other women who lack comforting skills than of men who lack such skills, according to new Purdue University research on interpersonal relationships.

“Yet, in the same study we found just the opposite reaction for the few women who identify themselves as the most feminine,” says Brant R. Burleson, professor of communication.

“Stereotypes say women should be better comforters. So, we expected to find that women would hold women to a higher standard, and when women did not meet these expectations, they would not be liked by others. However, this standard did not seem as important to women who considered themselves to be the most feminine.”

How women valued their gender identity made a difference, he says. For example, women who were deeply attached to a traditional feminine role preferred female comforters over men even when both of those people used well-meant, but ineffective comforting messages.

“We think these women were paying attention to the gender of the person giving the message and not the content or effectiveness of the message,” Burleson says. “But, additional study is needed to verify this explanation.”

Burleson; Amanda J. Holmstrom, a Purdue doctoral student from Farmington, Ill.; and Susanne M. Jones, assistant professor of communication studies at the University of Minnesota, conducted the research. Holmstrom, the paper’s lead author, presented the team’s findings at the International Communication Association annual meeting on (Saturday) May 28 in New York. The paper is scheduled for publication in the journal Sex Roles later this year.

“Earlier research about the role comforting plays in friendships has evaluated how supportive messages affect the recipient and what makes a positive message, but few studies have considered the consequences for helpers if they use ineffective messages,” Holmstrom says.

The research team conducted two experiments. In the first, 137 participants answered questions about stories they read illustrating the use of ineffective comforting messages by female and male helpers. In the second study, 44 men and 43 women discussed an upsetting event with either a female or male comforter who used ineffective comforting messages.

“Both experiments found that women did not like female comforters who used ineffective messages as much as they liked male comforters who used the same messages. In contrast, men equally liked the female and male helpers. These findings show that it is worse for women than men to be inept when providing emotional support, especially to other women,” Holmstrom says.

“One limitation with these studies is that both have people reacting to strangers,” Burleson says. “We next would like to see if the same is true for people in more developed relationships.”

Other research, including work by Burleson, shows that the ability to effectively comfort people is a crucial component of successful friendships, especially women’s friendships. Without good comforting skills, many women may not be able to maintain existing friendships or develop new relationships, he says.

“Sometimes people who are well-intended come across as insensitive when they fail to listen to a friend or when they give unsolicited advice,” Burleson says. “For example, if a friend recently broke up with her significant other, then it would be inappropriate to say, ‘You’re better off without him,’ ‘There are more important things to worry about,’ or ‘Don’t worry, there are more fish in the sea.’

“Comforting is not effective when it’s a form of unsolicited advice, considered critical, or perceived as a put-down. The person is trying to help, but the approach is counterproductive. By imposing one’s own frame of reference, the advice-giver also is failing to recognize the friend’s feelings and pain.”

Burleson says people can improve their comforting skills by making a commitment to listen rather than to give advice.

“Listen for your friend’s perspective,” he says. “Ask ‘How are you feeling?’ Acknowledge the person’s pain. People remain upset because they can’t make sense of their feelings or the meaning of the problem. That’s why it is important to encourage persons who are hurting to articulate their feelings so they can work through the pain.”

These studies were funded by Purdue’s Department of Communication and the College of Liberal Arts Center for Behavioral and Social Sciences. The University of Minnesota Department of Communication Studies also contributed.

From Purdue University

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