What can you do to help a friend whose creativity has been hurt? It’s tricky, but here are four reactions that work for me.
1. Listen. Really listen while the person tells the story of anger or hurt. Don’t interrupt, and don’t start to plan what you are going to say. Just listen.
2. When your friend finishes the story, show you have listened by paraphrasing back your friend’s emotion. “That’s horrible! Having your cat stolen is sad and crazy. I can see how upset you are.”
Empathy makes friends feel supported, not guilty. “What? You let your cat out at night? What sort of an idiot does that? No wonder the cat got stolen.” This is not the time to teach accountability. Better response: “You must be heartbroken. Can I help you look for your cat?”
Don’t top your friends story. “I know just how you feel. I had my dog and cat stolen the night my house burned down.” That makes your friend stop her own emotions and take care of yours, denying that she is in pain and asking after your situation.
Never say, “I know just how you feel.” You know how you feel, not how your friend feels. Telling your friend you know how she feels cuts off the conversation. It switches the emphasis to you.
4. Ask your friend what she would like you to do to help. Please don’t fix. “Fixing” is the reflexive offering of advice when none has been asked for, or is called for. When we see someone in pain, the instinct to fix may be huge, particularly if you are an extrovert or an expert in the area of the problem.
Fixing isn’t helpful. It doesn’t address what your friend wants or needs. It assumes you know the answer to her problem and you are taking over the job of steering the other person’s life. Without any permission except your own.
Fixing doesn’t work because it creates a new problem–your friend feels obligated to make you feel good by taking your advice, which is often not suited for your friend’s problem.
Fixing is meant to be helpful, but here comes that perspective problem again. What looks helpful to you, makes you look condescending–after all, here is your friend in pain, and you have the easy fix that s/he wasn’t clever enough to figure out. Ouch.
Fixing puts your friend in a bad position. If she tells you that your idea won’t work, she risks making you angry. Who wants that on top of her current problem? If she takes your advice and it doesn’t work, well, it was her decision to follow your advice. No one wins.
It might be a better to ask your friend what kind of help she wants. Offer encouragement. Offer support. No fixing needed.
So is this blog post fixing? Nope. It’s just information. What you do with it is up to you.
—Quinn McDonald is a creativity coach, who studied “not fixing” as a major skill in coaching school.