Imagine that one of your friends just had something bad happen—perhaps a relational breakup or a low exam grade. The only reason you know about that bad news is because someone else told you. Would you bring up the subject to your friend and express regret? Would you offer support and advice?
According to research by Ruth Anne Clark and Jesse Delia, authors of The Value of Not Intruding (Communication Report 2005), those well-meaning approaches might not be what your friend really wants or needs.
Clark and Delia asked 113 college students to imagine themselves in six different unpleasant situations (e.g. bad test score, brother in a car accident, dad unemployed etc.). The students were then asked how they would like to be approached by a friend who learned of the distressing situation from someone else.
The results were somewhat surprising. Although some respondents said they would want and expect their friend to bring up the subject, the majority reported they would rather their friend not mention the troubling situation.
The researchers found that “participants displayed a strong preference to determine for themselves whether to discuss their problem with a friend.”
The conclusions suggest there is value in being a silent listener around a troubled friend.