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The ‘sympathy vs solutions’ question came up recently when I was asked:

“How can I empower a friend who comes to me with a problem to adopt a solution-focused mindset? I would like to help them learn how to help themselves. I don’t mind listening to the problem, but why disuss it if you don’t want to do something about it?”

I’m always hesitant when I hear ‘solution-focused’ used like this; it usually means that the speaker doesn’t understand the term as I do (se links below if you want to know more). Anyway, back to the question, which seems to be two questions:

How can I empower a friend … to help them learn how to help themselves.”

  • Have they asked you to ’empower them? Maybe they just need a listening ear. Have you asked them? Try for example “I’d like to help, but I’m uncertain about how to respond? What do you need from me right now?”
  • Who is this ’empowering’ for? Does it mean that you’d rather they didn’t bother you? Or does it make you feel uncomfortable that you are unable to ‘fix’ it for them?
  • Is it possible that you are complicit in this situation? We all get into patterns of action-and-response and unwittingly encourage what we might see as the other person’s powerlessness. Is it possible that they think that if they bring you a problem they are fleattering you?

“Why disuss it if you don’t want to do something about it?”

There are approximately 282 reasons why someone would want to discuss a problem without necessarily wanting to do anything about it. Here’s a selection:

  • They want to review their options
  • They need sympathy and validation, not solutions
  • They have nothing else to talk about/don’t know how to strike up a conversation
  • Habit, or they watch too many soaps
  • They are depressed and need help (so watch this great video, Living With a Black Dog)
  • They understand that talking something through can help think it through (two minds are better than one)
  • They mistakenly credit you with more insight than you apparently have (or you wouldn’t have asked the question)
  • They know that talking can help crystallise vague ideas into something concrete and actionable
  • Etc.

It can be frustrating when someone repeatedly brings up a problem and they seem unwilling or unable to do something about it. If that’s the case, rather than responding with solutions (even if they are asked for), a more helpful approach would be to ask some intelligent, solution focused questions.

Links

Two minute read: Solution Focused Thinking.

Winbolt, B., (2011), Solution Focused Therapy for the Helping Professions, Jessica Kingsley Publishers, London.

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