What is inappropriate reassurance and inappropriate positive thinking?

When communication really works between two people, each person feels the other understands his or her situation, perceptions and feelings. That’s one reason why advanced listening skills are so important.

In some situations, though, well meaning attempts by one person to appear supportive to the other person actually impede communication, and can actually anger and frustrate the other person. By offering inappropriate reassurance and inappropriate positive thinking comments, it’s possible to cause the other person to feel that you are not understanding, and that you are invalidating their feelings at the time.

Let’s say you and Fred are having a conversation. Fred is upset because his boss made some unflattering remarks about him in a staff meeting, and he’s bending your ear on the topic. It’s clear he’s upset. What’s your natural reaction, particularly if Fred is a good friend?

You attempt to reassure Fred that “It’s not so bad”, or “Maybe he was kidding“, or “Hey, it’s no big deal, nobody will take it seriously“. It may be that all of these comments are accurate, but by offering them to a distraught Fred, you are trying to discourage his bad feelings and emotions. You do so with the best of intent, since you don’t want to see Fred upset or suffering.

Fred ends up feeling that you aren’t understanding, which causes him either to explain further why the situation is so bad (thus making himself, and you, more miserable), OR, he gets mad at you, and says “You just don’t understand“.

But you do understand. You just aren’t showing it in a way Fred can relate to. And, of course, you’re trying to “do good” and you get anger directed at you, so then YOU get angry. That’s often how the use of inappropriate reassurance and positive thinking plays out.

Often it’s better to show that you understand rather than reassure. For example, “I’d be pretty upset too if that happened to me”. Reassurances are best used when a person is calmer and “ready to hear” realistic comments.

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