Learn This Skill: Let Others Solve Their Own Problems

This is one of my favorite skills that I teach. It comes in handy for parents, friends, family, and coworkers. Sometimes it even makes sense for couples, too.

In order to release yourself from the burden of solving others’ problems (especially when you’re not being paid to do so!), you must understand the art of deflection. Deflecting means being able to listen to another’s plight and his or her attempt to pull you in, empathizing with it, and then putting it back on the speaker to see what they do next.

Deflecting is very simple and involves a few key phrases:

“Wow, that is a bummer.”
“Oh, that’s too bad – what a pain!”
“I would feel the same way.”

These are sympathetic statements that are offered in a sincere and genuine manner. Often just by repeating these statements in different forms, the listener is able to let the speaker vent and express feelings without being distracted by solutions offered up by the listener. Usually (especially with kids!) this is all the speaker wants: a sympathetic ear.

What happens too often though, is the listener makes the mistake of trying to “help” the speaker with advice, a “similar” story of his own (which is almost always perceived as 0ne-upping and not helpful) and the listener ends up with his advice being rejected. For a full explanation of this phenomenon, please reread my story about “Your New Golden Rule: Never Drag a Cat”, which discusses listeners who spend a lot of time in this inefficient mode.

If you cannot maintain patience to listen any longer and must turn the conversation “productive”, the trick to not getting drawn in (especially with a chronic complainer) is to add one more phrase after the sympathetic statement.

“What do you think you are going to do?”

Again, you are turning the speaker’s problem back onto the speaker. In the extremely rare case where the speaker actually actively solicits your advice (be sure this actually happens) even then you can think for a moment and ask the speaker:

  • What have you tried?
  • What do you think would work next?
  • What worked the last time you were in a similar situation?

It is always amazing to me how many clients have the answers to their own problems – and these solutions are far more creative and effective than anything anyone else could come up with.

Children especially are very creative thinkers, and develop coping and self-soothing skills when allowed to brainstorm their own solutions with your guidance. They do NOT need answers to all their problems; usually children just want a venting session (“I hate math! I’m never going to school again!”) These kinds of statements always sound alarming but when offered a sympathetic ear, the conversation usually end abruptly with a change of subject and an amnesia-like quality of moving on from the problem.

For more information on this technique, check out the cheesy but effective book, “I Don’t Have to Make Everything All Better” by Gary and Joy Lundeberg.