I was at dinner with a friend a few weeks ago, and she was telling me how her relationship with her partner was going.
One of the things that she was happy to report was that her partner has been getting better at not immediately offering advice when she is talking about her day.
We laughed because it’s something both of us understood so clearly. I’ve had so many clients confide “my husband is always trying to fix me and all I want him to do is listen to me.”
And it’s not just husbands, but friends, too.
A few years ago, after telling a friend of mine about a particularly bad day, I got frustrated with him for trying to give me suggestions on ways to handle it. I remember so clearly his surprise when he said:
“Why are you telling me this if you don’t want me to fix it? What’s the point? I don’t get it.”
We had a good laugh over it, but he was genuinely baffled by the behavior. I wasn’t the only person fussing at him for this, either. His wife complained about the same thing, and he really didn’t understand why.
He was just trying to help, after all.
I don’t want to turn this into a battle of the sexes because I have seen people of all genders exhibit this behavior, but here’s the rub…
If someone is sharing something and they want to feel heard and understood, it can feel lonely and frustrating when instead they receive advice.
It feels like preaching. It feels like you’re being talked down to or like what you’re going through isn’t important. Because for the person receiving the advice it feels like “here’s how you fix this, can we not talk about this anymore?”
Of course, to the person offering the “solution”, they often feel like they are being super supportive and loving by trying to resolve what sounds like a pain point.
So, how do you overcome this miscommunication when you have two people who communicate so differently?
Empathy or advice?
My partner and I practice this very simple technique and it’s made a world of difference in how supported I feel.
If I start talking about something I’m struggling with or feeling bad about, my partner asks, “Do you want empathy or advice?”
(Actually, at this point, it’s been shortened to “empathy or advice?”)
When he asks me that, I think for a moment and then answer honestly.
Sometimes I’ll say, “Empathy, please!”
Other days I want both, and so I say “Both.”
And if I really do want his help, because he is very good at bringing new perspectives to my issues, I let him know, “I would really love to know your thoughts, so advice is welcome.”
Sex educator and relationship guru Kate McCombs recently said, “Often, the best way to help someone is not to make them feel “better,” but to help them feel “lighter.”
Of course, this technique requires your partner’s buy-in, but it’s a super simple way to make everyone feel less frustrated.
If you both start doing it, that’s even better. What if you always offer empathy and your partner or friend really does want advice? It goes both ways.
Here’s another way to overcome this common problem.
Tell them what you need before you begin speaking.
That can sound like, “I’d like to tell you about this weird thing that happened today, and I would really love it if you would listen and empathize. I don’t need advice, I just want to share. Is that cool?”
Not only does this help you learn how to assert your needs, but it also sets your partner up for success by letting them know ahead of time what would make you feel most loved.
No need for mind-reading.
Plus, by ending with a question, they can tell you whether that’s something they can really do for you right now. Maybe they’ve had a bad day, too, and they just don’t have it in them to be empathetic.
Wouldn’t you rather know that before you spend five minutes sharing about your day and then feel rejected when they offer nothing at all?
You state your need. You ask for their support. They get a chance to weigh in. Everyone now feels heard and valued.
What if they go into advice mode anyway? Gently remind them what you asked for at the beginning of the conversation (remember that you’re on the same team and assume they mean the best) and restate your ask.
The key to almost any communication technique is setting yourself and the person you’re speaking with up for success by being really clear from a place of kindness. Once you get a few easy scripts in your toolkit, doing these things becomes incredibly natural and removes a great deal of frustration for everyone involved.