What does it mean to help or support someone? In the traditional view, people usually jump to charity: donated money or labor. That does help, but only in some situations. A hungry person may be fed, but what should this mean for:
- A spouse going through an undiagnosed chronic illness
- A brother going through a crisis relating to his spouse’s infidelity?
- A child wrestling with procrastination
Money and work isn’t going to fix any of that, we need more tools in the toolbox.
Most people I know see suffering in other people, empathize with it, and want to be part of the solution. So they talk to people in the situations like above. They try to identify a problem, and then bring work (and maybe money) to bear to “fix the problem”. The trouble is that some of these situations aren’t problems to be fixed; rather they are situations to be managed. When we relate to other people in bad situations, we also can sometimes unwittingly take on anxiety from their situation. Empathy combined with poor personal boundaries creates a “spill-over” of anxiety, which motivates us to look for solutions.
Frequently, this fix-it mentality won’t work, because these situations are complex; if it were so simple, perhaps the person would have already solved it themselves, or asked you for help with the fix (or money) if they knew there was one. People in really bad situations may feel helpless; and “fixers” who jump in with solutions and want to take the reins on the “problem” may further back-seat them in their own lives.
If you went to a psychotherapist to discuss one of these big life problems, they wouldn’t fix it for you. The way they’d attempt to support you is through the process of active listening, which is a process of talking to a conversational partner that stays engaged in a positive way, avoiding judgment or advice. Active listeners don’t give their partners a lot of information; they mostly just listen, prompt, and keep the other person “feeling heard”, by paraphrasing what was said.
To get out of sticky life situations, the person with the problem will have to do most of the work. Active listening helps you gain their trust, and understand their situation. It is not critical listening; your purpose is not to evaluate the message.
Is this Helping?
Many people will resist this idea that you could help a person just by listening. After all, just listening and paraphrasing back what they say isn’t changing anything about the world, right?
Well, it helps change that person’s mind, and that person’s mind can change the world. The key insight with some of the tougher life problems is that you cannot solve their problem anyway – because again – many of these are not problems to be solved, they are situations to be managed. If a spouse’s infidelity is like an area of pain that the brother has to navigate for himself, he doesn’t need the pain to be taken away, he needs to become a more skillful navigator of that area. Thinking out loud helps. Being understood by others helps. Having control and agency over his own life helps.
This is what it means to be there for someone. To listen and accept, openly and non-judgmentally. This is already to help, aid, and assist.