Other people’s problems

When a friend or a family member tells you about a problem or is facing a big challenge, how do you respond? Is your first impulse to jump in to help? While your intentions may be good, this may not be the best dynamic for either of you. 

Ask yourself why you want to fix it for them. Is it because you care and are really worried? Is it because the solution is very obvious to you? Does this person always rely on you? Is offering up ideas and solutions your role? This can backfire. Giving advice and offering solutions might not be what they want or need. In fact it may:

  • rob them of the opportunity to grow and develop problem-solving skills
  • signal that you don’t believe they are capable of managing challenges and making decisions
  • reinforce self-doubt in their own abilities and judgment
  • foster their dependence on you or others to “fix their life”
  • allow them to not take responsibility for their actions

Instead, try this simple yet powerful approach: pause, and offer choices. “Do you want to be heard, helped or hugged?” Let them tell you what they need.

If you are an advice-giver and problem-solver this may be hard. It may also be quite new and weird for both of you. But it recognizes that people need different kinds of support. It gives them choice. It respects their autonomy. They can tell you what they need in that moment.

If they want to be heard – do it. And do it to the best of your ability without judgment or interruption. Try to listen to hear, not respond. Listening is deeper than understanding words. Listen for meaning and feeling. Silence is OK. It lets them know you are giving them space and not hurrying them. It reassures them you are not going to jump in with an opinion. Sometimes, all someone needs is to be really heard. Even if you are bursting to tell them what they should do – resist that impulse.  

If they say they want help this option opens the door for problem-solving or seeking practical assistance. With their permission, you can offer guidance or support in finding solutions. In the best way this means helping someone figure out possible courses of action, not telling them what to do. It especially means not doing it for them.

Wanting a hug can be physical, if appropriate. But a “hug” can be any gesture of care, comfort and reassurance. It is thoughtfulness. Making someone a coffee or tea. Giving them a pat on the arm. Offering a tissue. Letting them know you will be checking in with them later with a text or call – and doing it. It shows that you are walking beside them in their difficulty, not rescuing them.

Responding to others the way they need helps them to better grapple with life’s troubles and challenges. It lets you off the hook to have the answers or be the fixer. It is better for both of you.