My husband and I attended a business event several years ago. I thoroughly enjoyed myself — or at least I thought I had.
After arriving home Jack looked at me and said, “Do you realize how often you finish people’s sentences? Or give them words as they are speaking?”
“Huh?” was all I could say.
When I looked confused he said, “I don’t even think you know you do it. I know you’re just being enthusiastic, but when you speak for others in conversations you sound arrogant, as if you know their minds better than they do or that they’re not talking fast enough for you.” I felt as if the oxygen left the room. That was never my intent. I owe my husband a debt of gratitude for his honesty … as painful as that honesty may be. I had no idea.
That realization caused me to pay more attention to my natural tendency – okay, bad habit! – of filling airtime when others pause. I also began guarding against my desire to offer suggestions when they not be needed or even asked for.
Apparently I’m not the only one to stare down this “fix it” mentality. During a recent workshop a participant said something I hear frequently: “I notice I move into fixer mode automatically. It’s almost as if I can’t help myself. I never realized that my directing or telling others what to do actually works against my clients, not for them. I really need to stop trying to fix people.”
Let me offer four reasons we try to fix people:
- A genuine desire to help. The biggest reason we jump in to help is that we truly want to make others’ lives better, easier. That’s a good thing – if we choose to help in a way that actually benefits the other person. Learn what to do when your desire to help gets in the way.
- Poor communication discipline. Once we’ve decided to “help”, we tend to advise based on our feelings, knowledge and experiences. You know the saying about “two ears and one mouth?” We need to listen more, talk less. This skill alone may prevent you from erupting with impulsive advice, ideas or directions. Learn how to use duct tape to help others.
- An assumption of what is needed. How many times have you said or heard, “I know just how you feel.” Even if that could be true, how helpful is it when someone makes this claim? Do you feel better? No, you probably think, “You couldn’t possibly understand how I feel because you’re not me.” So in addition to not being helpful, when you assume you know the other person’s situation completely, you may also assume you know the solution. Here’s why assumptions hinder helping.
- A misguided internal narrative. As the oldest of five, high achiever and helper by nature, I learned to impulsively and routinely step into fixer mode. After my husband’s comment, though, I examined what prompted that behavior. I realize I have little stories in my head that go something like this: “I really, really want to get this person out of their pain, frustration and disappointment. I’ve been there.” “I can imagine what that would be like.” “People have always liked my suggestions.” “Oh my gosh, I so relate to this person’s situation! I want them to know I understand so I’ll tell them what they mean! I’ll tell them what they are attempting to say but can’t find the words for!” All well-meaning, of course, but these internal statements encourage me to speak when I should listen, assume when I should seek to understand. You can hush those justifications in your head.
We can have well-meaning intentions for supporting others; however, being their expert isn’t the answer. What’s most effective is to create a safe space for them to think and reflect; allow them time to think and finish their own stories. Helping them fill in their own blanks is a powerful way to help people fix themselves – or better yet, be themselves.
- Consider the four reasons we try to fix people. Which one drives you most often?
- How might that behavior get in the way of others changing?
- What’s the story you’ve been weaving, unconsciously, in your mind?
- What’s the better story going forward?
- STOP offering advice. Period.
- START reflecting back what someone described, paying attention to their emotions.
- ALLOW a few seconds for the person to “hear” what you think they said. Notice whether they sound as if you “nailed it” or if they seemed to have realized something because you briefly recapped their story.
- TRUST they can figure the way through to healthful, more productive or positive behaviors.
- TELL someone you trust that you are trying to do less telling and more listening. Ask them to tell you when you begin doing that with them.