I tend to be relatively successful (I'm a student) compared to my friends, so many times, when my friends tell me about their failures (did poorly on a test, got rejected by a college, etc.), I'm not sure how to reply. I want to let them know that it's really not a big deal and I genuinely still think they're great, capable people.

Below are some of the ways I tried to say this and some of the ways my friends have mistook it:

Me: It's ok. [Things] will get better.
Friend: It's not ok. You don't understand how I'm feeling because you've never been in this situation before.

Me: That doesn't matter much in the long run anyway.
Friend: It doesn't matter for you because you're smart, but I'm not.

Me: Honestly, this doesn't represent your ability in any way. You're still a really capable person.
Friend, thinks: Yeah right, you're probably just saying this to sugarcoat the situation. Like do you actually think I'm capable since I'm so much worse than you.

Me: A lot of other people also [failed].
Friend: Well, I don't want to be a part of those people.

These solutions didn't seem to work for me. Is there a better way to respond to these admissions of failure that is supportive?

  • 14
    "You've never felt this way before" - Do you have no stories of your own failure you've overcome? I'm a Marine, a Programmer that makes six figures and in relationship for 10+ years now... yet I can easily pull up many examples of my own failures - personally, professionally, relationshipally... Behind every successful person... is a lot of unsuccessful years.
    – WernerCD
    Dec 14, 2017 at 12:58
  • Have you tried inquiry as to why they failed? Especially with science people this can work well.
    – DonQuiKong
    Dec 14, 2017 at 14:59
  • 6
    When I was a student, I could have asked the same question. But now, as a retiree, I have learned that although “smarts” can compensate for a lot, in the long run, initiative/persistence/effort/etc. are more valuable. Hard to say that convincingly before you’ve experienced it.
    – WGroleau
    Dec 14, 2017 at 15:27
  • 3
    "That sucks, dude." Dec 15, 2017 at 15:27

9 Answers 9


All of those examples seem like you're minimizing their feelings. It seems natural that telling them that they're going to do better eventually would help but, when a person is feeling like a failure, and they tell you about it... if you have the inclination, the better option is to ask them to talk about it more.

So, if someone tells you that they're struggling because their professor is really hard on the class, telling them "things will get better" isn't really helping and their response to you tells you that. When they say "you don't understand" ask them to help you understand... but you can do that even before they say it.

Instead of saying "things will get better", ask them to tell you about it more. Show that you're interested.

A: My professor is really hard on us and I'm doing really poorly in the course.
B: That sounds terrible... tell me more about what the professor is doing that's so terrible.

This leads to a conversation... a chance for your friend to share their concerns. You don't need to console them. Listen. Ask leading questions. Don't necessarily try to solve their problems - unless they ask for help.

If they don't seem interested in being drawn into a conversation about it, then just commiserate. Don't invalidate their feelings. Often, when someone comes to you to complain about a problem, they are looking for an opportunity to vent. Invite that. Give them a chance and then give them support.

You say:

I want to let them know that it's really not a big deal and I genuinely still think they're great, capable people.

I think you should focus, instead, on giving them a willing ear and telling them that they're great, capable people. And do so by giving them evidence, too... Instead of saying "you're smart" remind them of a time that you thought they were smart or capable or excellent. This shows that you know them and care about them and helps them remember that they can succeed.

  • 3
    This! When I complain about failures, I admittedly sometimes only do it to do just that. Complain! Sometime, we just want to whine, get things off our chest, and then be thankful we got to do that.
    – Layna
    Dec 14, 2017 at 10:06
  • 3
    'tell me more about what the professor is doing that's so terrible.' sounds very unnatural... (and reminds me of a certain meme....) 'why is he being so hard' or 'what does he do' sounds a lot less scripted.
    – Summer
    Dec 14, 2017 at 10:22
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    @JaneDoe1337 The point of the example is to convey the sort of question to ask, not to put words in mouths. I certainly hope that whoever uses this guidance would make it natural to their way of speaking and situation.
    – Catija
    Dec 14, 2017 at 13:04
  • 2
    It takes a great deal of skill and experience to be able to put yourself in someone's shoes without sounding condescending. After all "Empathy is often confused with pity(...)". Dec 14, 2017 at 15:49

Don't respond. Listen.

And listen actively.

That is to say, find out why your friend tells you about their "failure". You may presume that they want you to suggest a solution or to offer consolation. But this is likely not about conveying information; it's about expressing some feeling ("venting").

Those feelings could be frustration (e.g. with the outcome), disappointment (e.g. compared to their ideal self), fear (e.g. of dropping out), anger (e.g. about the teacher) or perhaps even pride (for you, since you did well and they now realize how hard the task was). The list could go on.

You listen actively by

  • signalling that you are interested, be it verbally or through gestures.
  • offering your understanding and asking whether it's correct, e.g. "sounds like you are really disappointed. I know you always set the bar high for yourself."
  • not "talking away" the issue. Sometimes people do want to hear "everything will be ok". More often, however, they need to sort out their feelings first, and if you teel them "it's ok" they just won't feel taken seriously.
  • not solving the problem. "You should try the textbook I'm using" is a problem-solving attempt. The intention is good, but again, most people need you to listen first before they can start problem-solving.

People don't like these kinds of responses because it makes them feel like their feelings aren't justified. You're basically saying "well, your feelings actually aren't legitimate, because other people failed too." (or whatever the reason).

People can't help how they feel. If they feel horrible because they failed, telling them their feelings aren't justified makes them feel worse, not better. Because (1) they failed and (2) you told them that they have no reason to feel bad.

So, what do people want when they say these things? They want sympathy. They want you to feel with them.

How do you do that if you haven't failed at a test before? Well surely there have been other times where you've been disappointed or had your feelings hurt? Don't focus on the reason, focus on how they're feeling.

"Aw, that sucks! I'm really sorry to hear that! "

If you can think of a similar example where you felt the same way (getting rejected, etc), you can also say something like "I remember when I felt that way too...". It doesn't necessarily need to be academic, it could be something else entirely.

If you can't, then asking them them for more information or leading the conversation, like @Catija suggested in her answer, is also a good idea.

  • 3
    Note that "I remember when I felt that way too..." is also deflecting attention away from their feelings. If you want to help them to vent, don't use it to change subject, just to illustrate.
    – user24582
    Dec 14, 2017 at 12:10

"It's ok. It will get better" is the most generic and sometimes annoying reply you can ever get.

I have been on both sides of the situation and this reply does sound irritating. Your intention is fine but the words to express it are not good.

First, try to keep your example away from the discussion as much possible and try to give some other example of someone who is at their level and did overcome failure. The more repeatable the example, the better the message will get conveyed.

Or you can propose how you can help them, by studying together or sharing notes etc. , whatever suits you. I did help my friend who had good brains but a lack of attention span by studying together long back. But some can be done for other type of failures too. Help through actions is better than helping with words.


You need to open yourself to them. Most of the time they just want support or just a pair of shoulders or ears to vent their frustrations. Most of the time the response is not even verbal. Body language conveys emotions better than words. It takes a great deal of skill and experience to be able to put yourself in one's shoes.

What is happening is that while you are tryiing to express empathy or sympathy, your colleagues are getting a feeling of pity from you:


Empathy is often confused with pity, sympathy, and compassion, which are each reactions to the plight of others. Pity is a feeling of discomfort at the distress of one or more sentient beings, and often has paternalistic or condescending overtones. [...] Pity is less engaged than empathy, sympathy, or compassion, amounting to little more than a conscious acknowledgement of the plight of its object.

When your engagement level with the other person increases, you move into sympathy:

Sympathy (‘fellow feeling’, ‘community of feeling’) is a feeling of care and concern for someone, often someone close, accompanied by a wish to see him better off or happier.

When you connect to a level you can feel their pain, it becomes what Neel Burton calls compassion:

Compassion (‘suffering with’) is more engaged than simple empathy, and is associated with an active desire to alleviate the suffering of its object. With empathy, I share your emotions; with compassion I not only share your emotions but also elevate them into a universal and transcending experience.

This infograph by Robert Shelton explains it better:

This neat infographic was designed by Robert Shelton, a psychologist in a Californian high school and describes a sliding scale of engagement, from pity through empathy, sympathy, having compassion at its top.

Your colleagues do not want you to tell them it will get better (that may be a lie, because we don't know the future). They want you to understand and share their pain.

You need then to customize your response to the person. Have you had a shared study session with that colleague? After listening to them and getting the message that you care for them (avoiding those phrases that sound premade), offer to host another joint study group.

What you need is to move your response up the scale of engagement.

  • 2
    Nice approach, it's pedagogic.
    – GlorfSf
    Dec 14, 2017 at 16:10
  • 2
    @GlorfSf thanks. I have two years on the stack network, but still get those first answer goosebumps when reaching out in a new community. Dec 14, 2017 at 16:11
  • 1
    Welcome! I'm a big fan of science-based answers here and I'd love to see more of them. Please do consider sticking around from time to time.
    – Catija
    Dec 15, 2017 at 1:09
  • I'd like to add, many people jump straight to the "trying to help" step. Often, not realising that they can't/are not being asked to. Sometimes people need to vent (while also being very aware there are next steps they need to take) Dec 16, 2017 at 20:00

People are doing this not in need of you teaching them how to do things right, they need support or just to express their feelings.

Just be friendly and open and loving. When somebody shares their failure with you, it is a sign of trust.

Tell them that everything will be okay and that they can rely on you in case of what.


I read one of those pop-psychology books. It was quite awful so I won't advertise it here. But it did contain one nugget, and this is it:

People with problems can be split into two groups, those who want help and those who want sympathy.

Find out which group your friend belongs to and react accordingly.

Most e.g. engineers tell you about a problem and expect practical suggestions, offers of help and tools.

Most e.g. nursery nurses tell you about a problem and want sympathy, warmth, reassuring words.

Obviously this is superficial and over-simplified, and people may wander from one group to another, but it really works. It even saved my colleague's marriage. So when you sense that your friend only wants sympathy, keep the solutions for later. Don't break out the screwdrivers, say "Oh, how awful". And vice versa.

  • I find this point of view (which is not at all uncommon) to be condescending because it fails to take into account that all problems - or plights - are not solvable, I.e. there is no help that can be given. Furthermore, sometimes sympathy IS help. Dec 19, 2017 at 11:07

From what I'm reading, you are doing the classic response of trying to solve a persons problem. Sometimes you can't. Sometimes no one can. Being able to say

"Yeah, I'd be really upset too. I know you worked hard on that."

and just stop there and listen some more. You don't have to have an opinion, or advice, or give direction to someone.

More often than not, listening and repeating back to the person what they said is the best thing to do. You repeat back what they said so they know you heard them, and they feel like you care for listening very intently.

When someone compares their failures to your achievements, that's not very fair to you. I think you would be right in reminding them of this, and it might even help them realize they need to work harder. I might say

"Hey, I have worked really hard to have great grades. You've worked really hard on other things, and sometimes I'm a little jealous seeing you (do whatever they do, might be more friends, funnier, some other achievement, sports, etc), but that's because you spent more time than me on it".

I know this is the case, because in my early 20's I spent a lot of time getting over social anxiety. I compared my career achievements to other peoples, and I might have been successful in my career earlier if I hadn't had to spend time and energy, and had more confidence. But I remind myself that I had to put work into improving my social anxiety to move on to other things.


Motivation can change anyone's life. But motivation from Right person at the Right time matters more. If our words can make them believe in themselves and not stop from trying ,that would be great.

1.Trying is way way better than sitting idle, so we already know you are close to succeeding.

2.Success is not everything.

3.Even after success there is lots to achieve, a bitter truth which most of the people overlook.

4.Success might give recognition, Peace of mind is above all. More importantly its how one believe's in himself adds to the longer journey.

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