I have a confession to make. I have fired a few therapists and coaches, mainly for the same reason. They tried to “fix” me.
Either they used an intervention like cognitive behavioral therapy ham-fistedly, or they jumped into advice when that wasn’t what I was looking for. I get that they wanted to help, but they weren’t “helpful.” They tried to be experts on a life they weren’t living.
For me, this point is driven home by my training as a coach. In solutions-focused coaching, we almost never give advice, we let clients lead, and we assume that the answers they need are somewhere inside them.
If you want to be helpful to friends and loved ones, it begins by knowing how to be helpful. The first step is often giving up your “helping habit.” The urge to jump in and fix stuff is often not best heeded.
You are not an expert in anyone else’s life.
There is no shortage of people online or in real life waiting for the chance to tell anyone and everyone how to live.
A young woman posted recently in a spiritually-oriented discussion group I frequented. She described feeling broken and listed the same symptoms I had experienced with Major Depressive Disorder. There was no shortage of advice from concerned members. It ranged from, “learn to accept that you’re awakening,” to, “start smoking cannabis every day.”
There were hundreds of suggestions. Almost none of them useful.
As a coach, I’m very sensitive to times when it is important to recommend that someone seek professional help. It’s the only advice I’ll give for safety’s sake.
I contacted the poster and told her that I was concerned about what she was describing, that it was similar to my experience of depression and that she might want to speak to a therapist or her doctor. I told her she could reach out to me anytime. She replied thanking me – I think she had been overwhelmed with all the non-professional helping.
I did not pretend to know what was best for this person – I believe that it’s something she should work out on her own with a professional. I did want her to be safe and find some relief.
Sometimes coaching clients are surprised at how I don’t dish out advice. I tell them, “If I study you for the next five years, I still won’t be as much of an expert in your life as you are.”
Ask if they want advice.
Say a friend comes to you with a complaint about their life. What do you do?
One of the best questions a coach ever asked me was, “What would be more useful to you, if I sat with you and reflected while you vent, or if I offered some suggestions?” Perfect – I just needed to vent. And as a good coach, she was able to ask me the right questions to allow me to direct myself towards a solution.
When someone comes to you for advice, it’s usually straightforward. “Hey, pal, what do I do about the moles in my yard?” Sometimes it’s not clear: “Man, this relationship is tearing me apart.”
If you feel the impulse to jump in and solve a problem that someone hasn’t asked you to solve, stop. Generally, I find this is ego talking. In my superhero voice: “I am Fixer Man!” This is the same place that mansplaining comes from – the “I know better than you” place.
So, if you must, ask. “Would it be alright if I offer you a suggestion?” Even better is if you ask them, “How do you think you’ll solve this?”
Learn how to hold space.
The world has no shortage of crappy advice.
What the world is short on is people who can sit, hold space, and listen nonjudgmentally.
Holding space is an expression I love that describes nonjudgmental active listening. It’s doing what I can to provide safety for friends, relatives, and clients to express whatever they need to communicate.
It is not sitting in awkward silence while a friend sobs.
All human beings have psychological needs for safety, connection, and significance. Holding space provides all three. When you hold space, you give security by not judging them. It gives them the freedom to be who they are at that moment. You provide a connection by being present – not checking your phone, reflecting back what they say, and listening. Listen not to respond, but to understand. You make the person feel significant by placing focus on them for this time. At this moment, they are important as is how they feel.
Creating and holding space in this way helps people move away from being reactive. It calms the alarm centers of the brain and allows people to operate from the problem-solving neocortex.
One of the things I love the most about being a coach is watching people transform from stress to joy in front of my eyes. This only happens by providing safety in the context of the session.
Learning to hold space will make you a better friend, romantic partner, and parent. Here’s all you need to do.
- Sit with the person and suspend judgment. Understand that we’re all human, and we’re all in this together. You should not be thinking of your next apt response while the person is talking.
- Place your attention entirely on the other person. Put your phone away. Get curious about what they are saying.
- Listen reflectively. Ask questions only to understand more. Let the other person do the talking. Allow for silence, even if it’s uncomfortable.
I cannot overstate the psychologically transformative power of helping without helping.
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