Facebook is a competition for fixers. Last week when I posted what I thought was a clever, ironic vignette, the comments quickly filled up with what I could have done instead, and links to where I could find the item to do a better job and examples of what other people had done. Except . . . I hadn’t asked for help. It wasn’t a question. It wasn’t until hours later that someone noticed I might have been wry, and commented on that.
We (particularly women) are fixers. Sad? Well, let me show you how to get over it. Happy? You could have gotten there quicker and easier, and here’s the link. My husband once saw me rushing by with an emotional toolbox and casually asked, “Is that your phone I hear ringing?” I looked puzzled and said, “Nope, my phone is not ringing.” He nodded, “Well, then I guess no one is asking you for your advice,” he said.
Well said. I learned not to fix in coaching school. There is a huge difference between fixing and witnessing. And witnessing is empathy, fixing is meddling. Hard to stop doing, but absolutely necessary if you want to keep your friends and be a dependable friend.
What can you do to help a friend who is hurting, but hasn’t asked for help? 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. Deeply. Nod, but don’t say anything.
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 awful. I can see how upset you are.” If your friend adds information, listen again.
3. Empathize. Empathy makes friends feel supported, not guilty. “What? You let your cat out at night? What sort of fur-mom does that? No wonder the cat got stolen.” This is not the time to teach accountability. Better response: “You must be heartbroken. Would it help if I helped you look for your cat?” Notice that you do not say, “Let’s go out and look for your cat right now.” You ask for permission to help. Not to tell her what to do, but ask for permission to help. Accept that “no” is also an answer.
4. 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. Competitive story-telling is not empathetic, it switches roles, putting you at the center of attention.
Watch out for “I know just how you feel.” You know how you feel, but not how your friend feels. Telling your friend you know how she feels cuts off the conversation. It switches the emphasis to you and allows you to direct the conversation. Stop. Instead, ask, “How do you feel right now?” If she just told you, acknowledge it. “It must be awful to be hurting so much right now.”
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 herself. 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.
—Quinn McDonald is a creativity coach, who studied “not fixing” as a major skill in coaching school.