The unintended consequences of solving people's problems
People can get a great deal of pleasure out of helping others. It makes us feel good that we have contributed to someone’s wellbeing and helped make their world a better place. Helping people has its dangers though, both for us and for the person we’ve helped, in that when we effectively help someone to solve their problem, they may learn one thing: that you are good at solving their problems for them. That means that in future, when they have problems, they come to you again and again, never learning to solve their own issues, and instead depending on you to do it for them.
It’s therefore useful to consider not how we can help people with their problems, but how we can empower them when they come to us with problems. It’s very tempting when someone comes to us to offer them advice and give them suggestions about things we think might work for them, but providing the solution in this way doesn’t help them develop their ability to work through issues, consider options and plan paths towards solutions that will really work for them.
To help empower people towards their own solutions, one thing we can do is reflective listen. That means reflecting back what you’re hearing, either in terms of content or in terms of the feelings you detect are behind the content. For example, you could use phrases such as “So the problem is that…,” or “It sounds like you’re really concerned about this whole thing.” This allows several things to happen. Firstly, it checks understanding. Sometimes we are interpreting things in a different way to what the person means and it allows this to be corrected. Secondly, it lets the person feel heard. We all like to feel heard and hearing what you’re saying reflected back is the best way to know that is happening. Thirdly, it allows the person time to think through the issue. Often when we try and think through our own problems we only get so far, but when given time and the opportunity to go through them with another person we can get much further in our thinking.
The second strategy for empowering people in this situation is to ask questions. These questions should encourage people to generate options about actions or think through how each action would work or the consequences of it. In addition, it’s good for these questions to be open questions, allowing a number of different answers rather than just one. For example, you could ask “What options have you considered in responding to this?” or “If you chose the first option, how would you do that?” or “What do you think would happen if you did that?” This really helps people to generate and evaluate options they think may work for them.
Helping people through their problems in this way is incredibly empowering. It lets them know they can solve their own problems and it helps them find a solution which will really work for them, rather than one that works for someone else. Deep down people often know what they want to do, they just need a little time and space to get there. As the person helping, it’s also a great process. It takes the pressure of having to come up with the right answers off completely, and means you won’t find yourself constantly having to fix everyone else’s issues in the future. In short, it’s a win win all round, and one that helps the person not only to solve their immediate issue, but to be far more resourceful in solving their problems in the future.