My friends are helpful and caring. I post a blog on a problem, and I’ll be smothered in advice and how-to’s to fix my problem. Even if I didn’t ask for help.
We’re a helping culture. Business prize problem-solvers and frown on those who don’t take action and take it quickly. To-do lists are touted as the traction in action. That’s all good. I’m a person of action myself, and I value getting busy and getting it done.
It’s a natural reaction to hear a problem and think about a solution. We’ve been trained to do it. Women do it because we are natural helpers. Men do it because action is presupposed to move toward an answer. In truth, action is often not what is needed in friendship.
Yesterday, a client told me, “When I need support and I get a to-do list, it just exhausts me.” And the client is absolutely right. What we want most from friends is to be heard. To be listened to. Often an answer isn’t needed. Just a nod of the head, or a hug.
We can’t fix other people’s hearts. We can witness their grief and validate their difficult feelings. Fixing is a natural impulse, but people who are angry, sad, or confused don’t need to be “should” on at that moment. They want to know that someone is on their side. Hears them. Sympathizes with their predicament.
We don’t do that, because empathy is much harder than advice. It demands looking into our heart and finding room for empathy. Grabbing a quick fix, an emotional bandage is much easier than sitting in silence, or asking a good question, or saying, “Wow that sounds tough for you right now,” and then being silent. We don’t like to admit we don’t know. We want our cheerful friend back, so we do something to make ourselves feel better. And that doesn’t help a friend who needs listening.
When I blog and ask, “What would you do?” I often get, “You should. . .” followed by well-meant intentions, usually suggestions the writer would never do–
“Sit down and write a gratitude list”
“Sit down and write a list of 10 reasons why [you should feel better].”
“Call up the person who hurt your feelings and tell them you love them”
Notice I said, “what would you do?” not, “tell me what I should do.” We want to fix things, so we reach for the emotional equivalent of kissing a boo-boo to make it better. We also want all this messy anger and tear business out of our lives, so fixing another person’s life is a handy reaction.
The best part is that if the other person’s life isn’t fixed, it was because they didn’t take our advice. Their fault. We are out of it. We can give them more advice on how to do it better next time.
Here’s a challenge: the next time someone pours out their heart to you, resist the urge to fix. Listen. Witness. Nod, repeat back some of the things you hear. Don’t tell your story, don’t tell a friend’s story. Listen. It is the best help of all.
–Image: Raven Listens (c) 2008, by Quinn McDonald
–Quinn McDonald is a certified creativity coach. See her work at (c) QuinnMcDonald. com. (c) 2008. All rights reserved.