3 Things Your Friends Wish You Would Do When They Tell You Their Problems

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Humans are "natural problem solvers" who "enjoy the challenge of puzzles."

That's according to Dov Seidman, CEO of the ethics and management compliance firm LRN, in his book HOW: Why HOW We Do Anything Means Everything. Although written in the context of business, Seidman's sentiments apply outside the workplace too. Whenever we're faced with any sort of problem, we automatically search for a solution. But in the context of our relationships, new research suggests that inclination might be unhelpful.

Let's say a friend or loved one approaches you with a debacle of their own. Wanting to help them work through the knots is natural, but unless someone specifically asks for assistance, research suggests you're probably better off lending an ear than you are offering advice.

In its 2019 State of Our Minds Survey, online therapy service Basis surveyed more than 1,000 Americans on the subject of stress—including how much they experience it on a regular basis, where it comes from, and the different ways they cope with these emotions. Of those surveyed, the most common coping mechanism was to wait for the anxiety to pass, followed by talking with friends and family. However, while survey participants value the support of their friends, 71 percent of respondents said they would prefer if loved ones would simply listen to their problems rather than try to solve them.

The problem with trying to "fix" your friends' problems.

"Giving advice about how to solve problems 'feels' like the right approach to helping a friend or loved one when they describe a situation causing distress and are not sure what to do," Basis co-founder and psychologist Lindsay Trent tells mbg, with an emphasis on the word feels. "This is especially true when you are able to offer excellent advice and are confident it could help improve their situation."

Though tempting as it may be to start blurting out advice, Vinay Saranga, M.D., a psychiatrist and founder of Saranga Comprehensive Psychiatry who was not involved in Basis' survey, tells mbg that many people simply just need an outlet to vent their problems, whether it's frustrations, anger, sadness, stress, or any other emotion. Sometimes recruiting another person to act as a sounding board for us is enough, he continues. "We don't necessarily want another person to tell us what to do."

It might be instinctual to offer advice to a friend or loved one, but resisting the urge and switching gears from what Trent calls the "righting reflex," aka "the impulse to adopt an expert role and try to 'fix' the problem," and instead focusing on being a strong support system can prove even more beneficial. This is because when you take on the role of the expert, you're inadvertently communicating that your friend or loved one is incapable of resolving the issue on their own. By doing this, Trent says, you're suggesting your own superiority.

It's also possible your loved one may have already narrowed down their options, so rather than looking to you for an alternative, they're looking for validation. Sharing their ideas with you is their way of gaining a sense of reassurance, Saranga says.

"They want to hear [you] say, 'Yes, this is exactly how I would do it,'" he explains, adding that this typically happens when someone feels as though their solution might be "controversial" or "going against the norm." In other words, "They are simply trying to put their doubts to rest."

What to do when your friends tell you about their problems:

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1. Just listen.

Your goal should be to keep the conversation open and flexible and let the other person take the reins. After all, in the end, this is their story to tell, clinical psychologist Michael Alcee, Ph.D., tells mbg.

To put things into perspective, Alcee explains that listening to someone else's problems is the psychological equivalent of someone taking you on a tour of their house. If they want to pick your brain on decorating styles, that's one thing. If they're just showing you around, "it isn't your cue to tell them that the drapes look terrible," Alcee points out.

2. Draw out their perspective on what they think the solution is.

Of course, there's more to being a good listener than opening your ears and zipping your lips; you also need to keep an open mind and an open heart. Trent tells mbg this can be achieved through shedding the expert skin and adopting a "generally curious stance" by asking questions and engaging in a format of conversation that draws out the other person's perspective, where you'd normally insert your own.

"By neglecting to ask what one has considered or tried already [and] how it worked, you miss out on valuable information that sheds light on their perspective. This also indirectly communicates that they are not equipped to handle it on their own and not worth exploring their ideas," Trent explains. "Instead, promote personal autonomy, emphasize competency and freedom to approach based on what they see as the best solution for them."

3. Drop the judgment.

Keep in mind that although you may not necessarily agree with others' choices, just as you need to do what's right for you, people have to come to their own conclusions and make decisions based on their values. The key to reaching this level of acceptance is to take any air of judgment out of the conversation, Trent says. Avoid harsh, condescending language, and ask yourself if the driving force behind your giving advice is because you genuinely believe a certain solution is right for the person or right for you.

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It takes practice.

"Skilled listening is something you actually have to practice. It doesn't come naturally and can at times be counterintuitive," Trent tells mbg. Start by conveying a mutual understanding that the issue at hand is their own, that it cannot be fully understood by anyone else, she adds, and be mindful of the roles you take on throughout the conversation. Express empathy, show support, and of course, feel free to offer advice should they ask. If they don't, mum's the word.

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