My husband affectionately created a nickname for my mom: Polly Platitude. Whenever someone had a problem, she’d pull out a platitude in her well-meaning effort to resolve the issue.
- Sick as a dog? “Whatever doesn’t kill you will make you stronger.”
- Your best friend betrays you? “Forgive and forget” because “time heals all wounds.”
- Your boyfriend betrays you? “What goes around comes around.” Plus “there are plenty more fish in the sea.”
- Can’t get pregnant? “Good things come to those who wait” if “it’s meant to be.”
- Your business fails? “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again” and this time “work smarter, not harder” because “where there’s a will, there’s a way.” Oh, and don’t forget that “money can’t buy happiness” which is why “the best things in life are free.”
Annoying, aren’t they? My son’s “favorite” that he never wants to hear again is “everything happens for a reason.” (Like that would make you feel better after a loss or tragedy?) And please don’t tell my assistant that her lifelong dream not coming true just “wasn’t meant to be” — or at least let me leave the room before you do!
Ah, platitudes. People use these familiar sayings because they think they’re helping the person in need. The sayings are easy to remember and appear to impart wisdom. Plus it take a lot less time and effort to blurt them out than mindfully thinking about what questions to ask that would actually be helpful.
People on the receiving end of platitudes are quick to disengage because they realize they’re not going to find the support they need in a saying. In fact, it often makes us feel worse because our feelings are dismissed and minimized.
My mom certainly was doing her best to help, at least until I kindly mentioned that her automatic responses made me feel like she didn’t even want to understand my issue or walk with me through the challenge. I also shared that her platitudes didn’t work well with my sons either. She took my message to heart. I give my mom a round of applause for diligently becoming attentive to her responses so they wouldn’t seem dismissive. She’s no longer Polly Platitude!
Like my mom, we all need to be mindful of the words we use and how we respond to others. Trite sayings aren’t always bad or hurtful; being aware of their impact, however, is critical. Paying close attention to someone’s actual needs — communicated in words, actions and emotions — is difficult when you just want to jump in and save them from pain. I know it’s tough for me. I’m an enthusiastic “helper”. I aspire to help people make positive changes in their lives. That’s why I became an executive coach. After hearing platitudes through the years, I’m keenly aware when one pops to mind and do my best to prevent it from reaching my mouth.
In my enthusiasm to help, however, I’ve probably left people feeling I’m arrogant, uncomfortably positive and/or naïve to their challenges. I’m a fast thinker and even faster talker. (Think Gilmore Girls on steroids). In the past when someone described a frustration, work challenge or health behavior they wanted to change, my brain zoomed to all the ideas I’ve seen work and my mouth impulsively wanted to share them. Not now, knowing how my attitude, responses and energy level impact others.
When someone is trying to change their thinking, feelings and behavior, however, positive energy may elude them. My positive energy might outright annoy them! If I don’t read how they’re feeling and adjust my energy level accordingly, they may mistake my positive nature for insensitivity.
Sometimes people are so disillusioned, disappointed or overwhelmed that they can’t imagine anyone could possibly understand their situation. And unless we’re walking in their shoes, we can’t. The only way they will believe that we understand their challenges is to ask questions about their situation and reflect back what we believe we are hearing. When we can accurately capture their story and speak it, we do two things: give voice to their internal dialogue (which they may never have heard out loud before) and connect at a heart level that allows them to feel not just heard, but seen.
Now, even when opportunity presents itself or I’m asked directly for advice, I remind myself it’s their journey. It’s their opportunity to learn. If they identify and make choices on their own, the change will have more impact and lasting power. To guard myself from robbing people of this opportunity, I keep in mind three approaches:
1. Help people help themselves.
Change is easier when mental and physical effort is reduced. Therefore helping people figure out how to change means helping them figure out how to make change more doable. When people are trying to make difficult changes, the process can feel so huge, so difficult and complex, they often can’t muster the energy to start.
Encouraging someone to first envision the results of their efforts helps them create a picture of their ideal outcome. You can’t leave them there, though, without an understanding of why they want to change or they may get stuck. After they understand their motive(s) for changing, you can invite them to set smaller goals.
As they define and refine, they will get a powerful energy boost as they recognize their autonomy in creating the life they want. We know from evidenced-based psychology and neuroscience research that autonomy reduces stress while increasing creativity, resilience and positive outlook. (Nothing creates stress and anxiety more rapidly than feeling a lack of control or choice.) Help people remember their choices.
If you feel the impulse to share, direct or fix during this process, PAUSE. It is also extremely important to allow the person you’re supporting to pause as well. Encourage them to think more deeply about what they want, how they might get there, who might support them and why this is all so important.
2. Recognize THEY need to take responsibility.
Very often, people know their best course of action yet choose to not take responsibility for tasks that aren’t ours.
Take the teenager who bemoans not having enough time for homework yet has ample time for social media and more pleasurable activities. (You may be thinking, “No really, I mean it. TAKE HIM!”)
As a parent, you may feel bad that students receive a pile of homework and are stretched because of full schedules. Let’s not feel so bad, however, that we take responsibility for their work or time. Instead you could ask:
- How are YOU planning your time?
- How are YOU making sure YOU prepare in a way that allows them to succeed?
- When have you had this degree of pressure before? How did you get through it then?
- What might help this time that maybe you didn’t try last time?
If my sons forgot their football cleats, jersey or lunch, I allowed a one-time drive-to-school pass. After that, I asked how they were planning to be prepared for their activities. Lack of planning on their part did not constitute an emergency – or butt-saving-special delivery – on mine.
3. Think before you speak.
“If I were you, I’d …”
How often have you heard that? How often have you said that?
Think of a time you were overwhelmed with life. Were you helped by someone telling you what to do? Or did slowing down enough to thoughtfully plan your solution have better results? Instead of telling exhausted clients how I keep from being overwhelmed, I ask them:
- What do you think you need to do differently?
- What have you done that has helped in the past?
- How would you like to look back on this two-month window and see yourself handling things more proactively?
Telling others how we would handle things feels like we’re helping. In truth, we’re limiting their resourcefulness and creativity. Instead, help people articulate their perspective, needs, plans, strategies and ideas to examine what could work and what might be missing.
Practice believing in other people’s ability to change. Encourage their autonomy by keeping your ideas to yourself and drawing out their ideas, strategies and wisdom. Letting them take charge is empowering.
- When have you kept your mouth shut when you wanted to give advice? What kept you from interjecting? What was the impact?
- What do you wish someone had done or not done for you when you were in the midst of change?
- How deeply do you believe people can figure out their next best steps to change?
- Write down the beliefs, biases or assumptions you’re making when you want to fix someone.
- Write a story about a habit, behavior or mindset you changed.
- Who has let you “help yourself”? How did they do that? What happened when you recognized you were responsible for your own change?
- If you catch yourself whipping out a platitude or suggestion, it’s never too late to stop yourself. Just close your mouth or say, “You know what, I bet you have thoughts or ideas on this. What are they?”
- Be present and mindful. See what it feels like when someone responds to your questions and curiosity.
- Actively listen to the narrative in your head rationalizing why someone needs your point of view. Test the truth of it by saying, “Really, how does my point of view improve things for them?”