What are people looking for when they talk about their challenges?

Sometimes I hear from people who are having a hard time finding a job or clients for their business, working on establish healthier habits, or sorting out their finances. The Internet tells me that people who are struggling generally don’t need more advice, since they’ve been told by everyone else around them to apply to jobs, go to events, exercise, lose weight, stop eating junk food, stop buying coffee, etc. In fact, we should probably stop asking how things are going and stop trying to solve people’s problems for them. Ditch the clichés, too. Sympathy, encouragement, support, and maybe even a little distraction are apparently the way to go.

It got me thinking about different purposes for conversation, and how to match someone’s purpose better. Mismatches can lead to frustration on both sides, like when you’re really looking for advice and different perspectives and someone fobs you off with “You can do it!”, or when you’re feeling like this situation will never end and someone passes on a piece of trite advice that you’d already tried on day 1, or when someone just wants to talk and you jump in with a problem-solving mindset.

It feels a little weird to explicitly talk about what people are looking for in a conversation, but what if clarifying that up front can lead to a more effective exchange? You could minimize those mismatches or even direct people onward if you’re not in the right space for a conversation. For example, although people have told me that they appreciate how positive I am (which is good for when people need encouragement), I catch myself becoming impatient if people just want to vent without taking action. I’m much better with breaking down big challenges, finding alternative approaches, and celebrating small steps forward (even if they’re minuscule). I read extensively, so I can tell people some common approaches to different life challenges, but I don’t have a lot of personal experiences because my life has been pretty straightforward.

There are so many different kinds of conversations, so I’ll keep the scope of this reflection manageable by focusing only on the conversations where someone has started by describing a problem. What are some of the things people look for, and how do I want to respond?

Advice (rarely): “You should…” is a common response when people share what they’re going through. People rarely need additional information, but oddly enough, they get spades of it (even unsolicited). It’s not like it’s difficult to search the Internet or find books about different life challenges… and yet it’s so tempting to fall into the trap of thinking that just a little more knowledge will help people solve their problems.

I’ve been curbing the impulse to give advice by reminding myself that people are generally smart and usually try everything before asking for help. Instead of “You should…”, I often phrase things as “You’ve probably …. How did that go?” If they hadn’t done it yet, I ask what’s been getting in their way. I rarely have experience with the particular situation they’re in, but barriers tend to be common, so I can share how I’ve dealt with those – not in a “You should” way, but rather “Here’s what I tried and what worked for me.”

Acknowledgement: Sometimes people just want someone to see them and know what they’re going through. This is the “Oh, you poor dear; let’s have some ice cream and you can tell me all about it” sort of thing, I think. Active listening techniques (restating, etc.) can help here. I’m not particularly good at this yet, but I might get better at this by focusing on the interestingness of people.

Distraction: Sometimes you just want to have fun and take your mind off stuff. Like acknowledgement, but this time you’re having ice cream and watching your favourite movies or something like that. I’m not particularly good at this yet, but I can get better at this by asking people what they want to do.

Encouragement and celebration: “I’m in a sucky situation, but I’m working on it. I’m making slow progress, but I’m making progress!” “Woohoo! You can do it!” is sort of how this conversation goes. It’s like acknowledgement, but people are moving forward instead of getting stuck. I like cheering people on, and I might be able to do even better by helping people track their progress so that they can see how they’re doing over time.

Thinking out loud: I often find myself understanding things better when I explain them either to myself (through blogging) or to other people. Conversation is great for making sense of and making peace with things. People can ask questions to probe your reasoning and direct your thinking, helping you deepen your understanding.

Active listening and thoughtful questions can help. For my part, I can see it as a way to learn from other people’s lives and thought processes, so there’s a lot of benefit in doing this too. Learning about therapy might help here.

Poking holes (rarely): “I’m going to …” “That might not work because of …. Have you thought about …? What about …?” It’s mind-boggling how many people have this as their default reaction, actually – probably second to advice. My parents used to struggle with this a lot, because my dad would come up with wild ideas and my mom would immediately have her “How would we make this actually work?” hat on. I hardly ever do this with other people, although I do this myself to test scenarios: come up with ideas, then put on the “What could go wrong?” hat and poke holes, then update the plans to address those holes.

It’s probably better to assume people are not looking for this unless they explicitly ask for it. If people do want this, I like approaching it from a “Let’s make the plan better” perspective rather than the “You suck at planning” perspective.

Accountability: It can be easier to take action or change habits when you publicly commit to that, and having a friend follow up with you and keep you accountable can help a lot. I do okay with this, although I don’t actually enforce anything in case people miss their goals. (Perhaps I should start insisting on some kind of consequence – maybe ice cream.) Learning about coaching techniques might help here too.

Different perspectives: “I’m in this situation and I think you’ve been in something similar. How did you solve it?” is the gist of this conversation. Sometimes knowing that something is possible (because someone you can identify with succeeded at it!) is enough to give you the strength to get through the situation.

Requesting help: This is where you’re asking for help. Requesting specific favours do well, I think, because that makes it easier for other people to recognize situations in which they can help you. That’s why it’s good to describe your ideal client and ask friends to keep an eye out for people matching that description, describe your ideal contact and ask people to check their networks, etc.

I feel like my network is not as plugged-in as it could be in terms of business owners and potential clients for friends. I probably need to meet more people who need stuff! Hmm, actually, the input part works pretty well in terms of sketchnoting/graphic recording – I get the occasional request that I can forward to other people. In other areas, I can usually point people to other people who have experience in the kinds of things they want to do and the meetups to check out, so I guess that’s something. There’s room to work on this, though! Time to go to more events and connect with more people. Although come to think of it, that’s not actually the thing that worked for me in sketchnoting – maybe I’ll focus more on creating useful stuff, and go to a few events for serendipity.

Acknowledgement, distraction, encouragement, thinking out loud, poking holes, accountability, different perspectives, requesting help… What other purposes have you noticed when you talk to people about life’s challenges?

  • Sue O’Mullan

    I honestly liked your post and how you make sense of conversation and types of responses…. This is a very grey area for those who are black / white thinkers. I thought everything was able to be thought of and explained and defined one upon a time long ago – long before kids and long before I became a parent. I did not have a clue… What life has brought has changed me forever. I can’t even have a conversation with most people b/c of my challenges. I think some conversing as I am today – is challenging. I can not even think past caring for a child whom I gave birth to and now is 20. I can’t think past the daily challenges with autism (severe in every sense of the word), profound mental retardation, seizures that brought on brain injury on top of dual diagnoses… fighting each system for basic human rights – dignity if you will. I don’t care if someone is unsure of their paint color when I watch someone be in severe physical pain daily and fought for three years for pain medication for him – having the doors close in my face b/c no one cares enough. I honestly can’t talk to someone who says to me “God doesn’t give more than you can handle” when I rec’d my cancer diagnosis on top of the daily care for my son and his safety to just live another day. If I go out and see a parent “take for granted” something that their child is saying – I cry oceans of tear inside of me b/c I would die for my son to speak – to say a word and understand it. Hell I would be thankful if he understood the yes/no questions that it took 2 years to teach until a grand mal seizure took that away…. I give you credit for trying to do what your post did. I have lost my ability to converse and to even care what someone is saying unless it is with true kindness to another person – or something that is helping another person (paying if forward)… I think the one thing that is somehow not able to be stated is to respond in kindness – always keeping the golden rule in your mind – treat others as you would want to be treated and to add – want to be treated if you could not even help yourself…. unconditionally – without wanting anything in return – I have learned that all lives are precious – communication is a fine art…. especially for those who cannot communicate but have needs. That is more my style – how do you help someone communicate if they can’t? How can you communicate with someone who cannot understand words? How can you communicate with someone who used to understand pictures but lost that skill? How can you reteach that with skills that are now gone? Yikes – went off topic… basically I wanted to just say that some communications aren’t worth a response – some are. The ones that are worth it – you will always remember words that were said that are mean… they will never go away and leave a bad taste in your mouth forever (I have those too)!!! But the kind ones – may just make a difference in someones life!!!!

    • Thank you for your thoughtful comment! You’re right – kindness is an important point. Sometimes, I think, we must go beyond treating others the way we want to be treated – or at least focus on a deeper understanding of how it is that we want to be treated. A superficial application of the Golden Rule might have, say, a rationalist problem-solver being terse and solution-focused when what someone else really needs is a hug. If you take a step back, though, and aspire to treat the world with loving kindness – no matter what you get back (yes, even those well-meaning “I’m sure you can handle it!” responses when what you really want is help!) – I think that might be a higher ideal. Hard, but something to strive for.

      Reflecting on kindness is helping me learn a little more about conversations and responses. I think the easiest, most instinctive responses for us can be unkind to other people–or to ourselves. For example, I’m sure you’ve run into people whose first response to any challenge you bring up is “Yeah, I’ve been through worse! Just the other day…” It seems like an unthinking response that grows out of our self-centredness, and is unkind to the other person. Similarly, advice can be unkind – it assumes the other person hasn’t already tried those, and ignores the person’s other needs.

      On the other end of the scale, if you spend so much energy on generous responses (acknowledgement, encouragement, empathy), that can end up being unkind to yourself. I’ve had friendships soured by the need for reassurance and appreciation, while other friendships have thrived because there’s an ebb and flow of energy instead of a constant drain.

      There are situations in which we are obliged to give of ourselves even if it hurts, and even if there is little hope of improvement. From your comment, I can see how taking care of your son demands a lot from you – and sometimes it can be difficult to talk about how difficult things are, and to be listened to. (Communication and empathy are both skills that need to be developed; people aren’t just born knowing what to say or do.) From what I read, perspective, self-care, and support become very important in those situations.

      I guess that’s why there are support groups – so you can draw strength and inspiration from other sources, and so that you can share your own. Do you have any experience with them? I have occasionally been in situations where there are support groups for people going through similar things (for example, being a newcomer to a country), but I tend to work through things on my own or with a small group of friends instead; I think it’s because I get a lot of understanding from books and reflection. I suppose that connecting with support groups is something I will learn more about later on.

      In terms of conversations about challenges, I think there must be a happy alternative that’s kind to others and kind to yourself. There must be a way of responding to other people’s challenges that builds up both them and you. I know that thoughtful discourse, action, and shared learning are good for me. These approaches may be kind or unkind depending on people’s needs. If I assume that in general, people have other people whom they can approach for help, and that I can let people understand that if they need something else they can ask for it, then perhaps I can start with being thoughtful and consistent so that people know what to expect of me. It won’t be a good fit for people who expect friendship to result in the ability to read one’s mind about what one needs, but then friendships built on unrealistic expectations like that will be hard to maintain anyway. For the rest of the people I talk to or listen to, this will probably work out.

      Thanks for the nudge to think about these things!