Pretend you have a problem, maybe with a family member or co-worker. A friend notices that you’re angry and asks what’s wrong. You open up to describe what’s happening when you suddenly hear:
“I know what you mean! That same thing happened to me! I completely understand how you feel. I figured out how to deal with it. If I were you, I’d …”
Oh boy. It’s difficult to even read that sentence without feeling misunderstood and diminished. When you need help with something, the last thing you may be looking for is someone to fix it for you or worse, fix you.
When we attempt to fix people by telling them how they “should or could” remedy a situation, however, we’re assuming 1) we know what they need, 2) we understand their situation and 3) they want our help. Plus we give the impression that we believe they aren’t capable of managing their own difficulties or confusion. In that way, fixing others is insulting, diminishing and arrogant.
On the other hand, inviting people to tell their story honors and respects them, and clarifies their situation so you better understand it. Very often they’ll have narratives running unseen behind the scenes. We all do! We don’t even realize our behavior is being guided by these messages that may or may not be true or helpful.
I unconsciously ran a story in my head for years that the only thing I was good at was encouraging other people, and the best way to do that was to suggest wise ways to handle boyfriends, family issues, girlfriend fights, job hassles and such because everybody told me (therefore, affirmed for me) that I was wise beyond my years and “oh so helpful.”
You see, before I was ten years old I was the go-to “parent” of four younger siblings. I was in charge. I was right (even when I wasn’t.) My story, that I could best help others by telling them what to do, influenced my relationships with them and others.
Years passed and I became a coach. In that role, I strived not to be somebody’s expert. With my first coaching client, that desire supported an effort to protect myself from being responsible for outcomes. As I gained experience, I began to see how smart other people really were about their own solutions. And boy, did that reduce my own stress!
One more thought, and it’s a doozy: the impulse to fix others can blind you to your own deficits, shortcomings or quirks. You may be quick to get the sliver out of someone’s eye while ignoring the plank in yours.