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When to problem solve, and when to connect | Sebastian Wingfield

In today's blog post, we want to explore a challenging subject for many people: how to be a supportive listener. It's easy to assume that being a supportive listener means telling the other person what they are needing to hear so that they can get out of their challenging situation. Why wouldn't we assume this? But most often, unless someone has explicitly asked you for advice and expertise, they are not looking for it. Instead, they are looking for someone to give them space; and for connection with them in that space. Paradoxically, it is this very connection that often is what is most effective for people to solve their own problems.

Consider this scenario:

Adam notices that his friend seems... a bit off, and he ask them what's wrong. It feels a bit vulnerable for them to share, but they tell Adam about a challenge that they are going through in their relationship with their partner, that they feel very hurt and confused, and are having a hard time knowing what to do about it. Adam responds by saying, "Don't worry about it, ALL you have to do is tell them _______. You'll be fine, trust me!"

What do you think about Adam's response? Did you notice how he didn't ask any questions, and had the "right answer" right away? How do you think you would respond? Were there questions that you had and wanted to know more about it?

How can we offer connecting support to someone?

When we listen and remain curious, we implicitly communicate: "I trust that you understand your situation better than I do."

First off, it means adopting an orientation of genuine curiosity, rather than one of interpretation and expertise. You can't learn when you're already an expert.

Instead of interpreting and offering advice:

  • "What you're saying means (this)!"

  • "Oh, I went through that exact same thing, here's what you should do."

  • "Have you tried (this)?"

Remain curious about their experience, and speak tentatively when trying to understand:

  • "Thanks for telling me, I can imagine that might feel a bit vulnerable to share."

  • "How has that been for you?"

  • "What is it like to talk about this?"

  • "Do you have an idea of why this happening?"

When we offer advice, we are trusting ourselves more than the other person (I discuss some other ineffective listening styles in an older blog post: Listening, Harder Than It Sounds). When we listen, and remain curious about how someone else is experiencing a situation, and wonder what their understanding is, we are telling that person "I trust that you understand your situation better than I do."

Secondly, it means noticing what your own experience of someone else's story is, and having the capacity to just be with it. Next time someone is telling you about the challenge or discomfort they're experiencing, notice how it moves you, what spontaneous feelings and thoughts come up for you, how uncomfortable their experience might make you feel. When we can really slow down and attune to ourselves honestly, we can see how the instinct to problem solve is often about taking care of ourselves. In other words, we are implicitly attempting to take away someone else's problem/challenge/discomfort, as a way of soothing ourselves.

To practically give space to someone means to allow more of the other persons feeling and thoughts from their experience enter into the relationship, and to allow the discomfort to show up without solving it. When we can hold space for someone like this, we are able to join the other person in their experience and provide connection in the difficult feeling.

To practically give space to someone, means to allow more of the other persons feeling and thoughts from their experience enter into the relationship, and to allow the discomfort to show up without solving it.

Have you seen this video?

I have mixed feelings about it, given the way that it pushes the stereotype of the man just being "logical" and the woman being "irrational" only wanting to talk about her feelings. I personally believe that the temptation to problem solve is not exclusive to men; and that the desire to have someone connect with you and your experience is not exclusive to women.

And yet, the video does a pretty good job at teaching an important lesson: when someone is looking for a supportive person to listen to them, they are not always looking for their problem to be solved. Instead, they might want you to just connect with their experience. However, there are times in which a problem-solving response is more appropriate. Especially in times of crisis (like if you have an ACTUAL nail in your head)!

When is problem-solving appropriate?

Problem-solving responses are typically more appropriate when someone has explicitly asked you for your advice, perspective, or understanding; When you hear someone say to you:

  • "What do you think I should do?"

  • "Have you ever been through something like this?"

  • "I could really use some advice on this."

Or when you have identified that someone does not have the capacity to solve their own problem, and are in a state of immediate need. This might look like:

  • Someone in a state of significant physical or emotional distress and is needing someone to take charge (e.g. a panic attack, a trauma response from an accident)

  • Someone who is in danger (e.g. escaping abuse)

  • Someone who is lacking basic needs (e.g. food, water, or shelter).

***It's important to recognize the limitations of your own expertise, and that your attempt to help might hurt. For example, in the case of imminent suicide, unless you are a therapist or health care professional, trying to help someone by yourself is incredibly risky and possibly fatal for the other person. If you are in this situation and needing help, call the Talk Suicide Canada hotline 1.833.456.4566 to get solid guidance on how to respond.

Don't know what the best response is?

At times, what someone might need is unclear. Perhaps they are asking you for advice, but you sense that giving advice would be inappropriate. Best rule of thumb: Just ask.

  • "What would be the most helpful response from me?"

  • "I want to be sensitive to how you're feeling, and wonder if there's something you're needing to hear?"

It's important to recognize the value of both problem-solving and connecting. The theoretical spectrum of therapy even reflects this. There are different types of therapies which are more focused on the problem-solving end, like Behavioral Therapies, Brief Solutions Focused Therapy, Coaching, etc. ; and others that are on the connection end, like Psychodynamic, Existential, and Humanistic (I talk a bit more about this in another blog post about the difference between Counselling and Psychotherapy).

Do you have any feedback/questions on this article? Feel free to leave a comment and let me know. I'd love to continue learning with you :)

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