Understanding the outcomes of supportive communication: A dual-process approach

[Editor's Note: Brant Burleson passed away last month, so I add this entry in honor of his work]

By Guest Author Garrett Gustafson

Comforting is a difficult art.  It is always difficult to find the right words to help those in need of solace.  As such it is imperative that we know what types of support will provide the results we intend.  A number of studies demonstrate how supportive communication works.  Burleson’s study offers evidence that effective support is related to the following factors:

  • Cognitive processing – the amount of thought a person applies to the supportive advice.
  • Processing ability and motivation – the capability of a person to fully understand the message, and the motivation for the person to do so.
  • Person-Centeredness – the degree to which the message acknowledges the person’s feelings.
  • Cues – things in the environment that change how the person reacts to the message.


Picture of two Russian SoldiersBurleson’s research suggests that these four factors lead to different levels of satisfactory support.  He finds that the amount of cognitive processing or thought a person applies to support messages is related to how useful that solace is evaluated as.  The research also suggests that one’s ability to process the message and motivation to do so vastly changes the perceived effectiveness.  People who are increasingly upset have more motivation to process support (and thus apply more cognitive processing).  Additionally, people who are better able to process support messages benefit more from them.  He found that in all of these situations supportive communication was taken more positively, and was reported to have a greater effect. There is a tipping point, in that people that who are extremely upset have a diminished ability to process supportive communication, and less likely to regard it as useful or positive.

The degree to which the message acknowledges the person’s feelings also impacts its effectiveness.  High person-centered messages are often regarded as the most beneficial, and positive.  Highly centered messages focus on the person’s feelings and address them instead of the cause of upset.  Finally, Burleson also suggests that things in the environment such as a good smells can increase the perceived positivity of the message. However, he also notes that these cues are often a much more temporal source of comfort.

In order to improve supportive communication skills one should provide high person-centered messages.  Messages that acknowledge the upset person’s feelings are more effective at solacing the person for the long term.  The helper or supporter should also remember that because extremely upset people cannot process support messages accurately, they should be first supported with lower to mid person-centered messages (i.e., messages that offer solutions or draw attention away from the problem instead of addressing it).  These messages serve to distract the person from their problems and diminish them enough until  the more meaningful high person-centered messages can be received.

Burleson, B. R. (2009). Understanding the outcomes of supportive communication: A dual-process approach. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 26, 21-38.