Within our culture, it is often habitual to offer ideas and solutions to presenting problems that our partners and friends bring to us. But despite our best intentions, this approach risks not only maintaining a gap in connection but possibly widening it.
We live in a productive, action-oriented, goal-setting society, where efficiency and quick results are desired, if not expected of us in whatever work we are doing. With that said, to more deeply connect with our partners and friends, actually, the opposite is necessary. Slowing down and remaining present, without an end goal or specific agenda, is what helps us better understand the person in front of us and it helps them feel understood.
Why “fixing” can be harmful
The need to “fix” our partners’ issues is one way many of us try to show our love, protect and help them. We tend to want to solve the problem at hand. But the ramifications of this could be harmful. There are a few possible messages that are sent when we start to solve someone else’s problem without their permission. One message might be saying “it doesn’t look like you know the answer, but I do” which may lend another implication saying “you can’t figure this out, but I can.” This may not always be the case, but it’s something worthy of being aware of because our partners can figure it out. What is often needed is a kind and caring ear to help them do so. Following are some ways to do just that.
What to do?
Ask what they need. If you’re ever unsure, or even if you think you are sure, ask your partner “what do you need from me? Would you like me to just listen or would you like my advice?” This offers them the chance to consider what their needs are and clarify for you the next steps (as follows). Perhaps even ask yourself and/or your partner: “what is the purpose of this conversation? Is it to truly connect with my partner? Or is it to move forward with an action plan?” Gaining clarity on the goal of the conversation can help set you both up moving forward with it.
Don’t fix it. When our partners arrive in pain and are hurt, our usual inclination is to help them feel better. However, emotions are not something to be “fixed.” Emotions are not a problem to be solved. They are part of the human experience, in need of attention. In fact, ironically quite the opposite might be true: rather than doing something to help with your partner’s emotions, doing nothing is often what is needed. What I mean by “doing nothing” is sitting with them, remaining present, perhaps holding their hand or holding them if they are in emotional pain.
Reflect their feelings. Reflect back the feelings you heard from your partner. For instance when he says “I’ve got so much going on at work and I’m not getting much support from my team,” what underlying feelings might be present here? To remain actively present, reflect on how you might feel if this were happening to you. A possible response might be: “That sounds really overwhelming and stressful. I can imagine how frustrating that would be to not feel supported.” Or perhaps this is more your style: “Wow, that sucks, I’m sorry you’re going through that right now.” This demonstrates that you are engaged in the conversation and are genuinely trying to relate to them through validating their emotions and therefore their experience.
Follow with curiosity. How does it feel when someone asks you about what you do for work, how your day has been, or is wanting to know more about who you are? What does this message of inquiry tell us? That we are seen. That we matter. And that someone cares about us and our experience. Knowing this can help us remember to do the same for others by expressing curiosity around how they are doing and what their needs are. When our partner is in pain, stating something like “tell me more about that,” or “what was that like for you?” can go an incredibly long way in connecting with and supporting them.
Practicing empathy, reflecting the feelings that are shared in their experience, and holding them as they feel can be the start to a very trusting and therefore long-lasting relationship. When we show up with the intention of simply being there to witness and support rather than fixing someone’s emotional experience, we are on our way to bettering ourselves, our relationships, and even our communities.