Have you ever noticed that some people ask for help, but they don’t really want to change? It can be frustrating to give time and resources to help someone in a tough spot, only to find out they don’t want to be a powerful person and take steps to solve their problem. It is so much more wise, healthy, and rewarding to focus on the people who really want to change. But how do you know if someone will value and use your investment of time and energy? And how can you make sure you don’t start working harder on someone’s problem than they are (the definition of codependency)?
The most important thing to establish when you’re trying to help someone with a problem is, “Whose problem is this?” All problems must have owners. Your commitment as a helper must be, “I will not be solving your problem for you–I will be helping you solve your problem. If you do not have a problem, I do not have a solution to offer you.”
When someone comes to me for help, I lead them through the following 5-step process that establishes them as the owner of the problem and empowers them to build a great solution to it.
1. Empathy: “This must hurt so badly!”
People feel open to your input when they feel that you care about them, feel their pain with them, and are for them. No one lets someone else into the middle of their mess if they think they will be rejected, judged or controlled. Acknowledging the person’s emotions–“You must be really scared right now” or “Do you feel hopeless?”–lets them know you are listening and you care. Be genuine in your approach. Going through the motions of empathy to get to the solution or to control the outcome will not work. Be willing to go there with the person and feel their pain–that’s the only way to establish a personal connection and trust in which they can feel safe and open to your influence.
2. Empowerment: “What are you going to do?”
After you and the person have identified the problem and their feelings about it, you get to introduce a question: “ What are you going to do?” This question is designed to engage their thinking and give them a chance to have a new perspective. It helps them move from feeling like a powerless victim of their problem to believing they have the power to do something about it.
3. Exploration: “What have you tried so far?”
Many people have a sad story they enjoy re-telling to anyone who will listen, arguing the case that they have tried everything and are powerless to fix the problem. But someone who is really ready to change will be willing to try new things to resolve their problem. Asking, “What have you tried so far?” suggests a narrative framework in which they see themselves on a journey to find a solution and move forward, instead of staying stuck in the same cycle over and over. If they insist on seeing themselves in this cycle, it is clear that they don’t yet want to change.
4. Education: “I have a couple suggestions if you’re interested.”
Someone who has made it to this point in the conversation will be interested in any possible ideas for improvement you can share. Likewise, by now you should have a lot of great information with which to formulate a few helpful suggestions, and you can give them with confidence that the person is searching for a solution. However, to be sure, it’s always good to ask, “May I give you an idea or make a suggestion?” It’s also helpful to frame your suggestions as questions. (Most of your role as the helper is to keep tossing the ball back in the person’s court by asking powerful questions.)
5. Empowerment: “So, moving forward, what do you plan to do?”
After you’ve looked at what the person has done in the past and offered suggestions for moving forward, bring them back to the all-empowering question once again: “What are you going to do?” Hopefully, the person who owns the problem now has helpful information with which to build a plan for addressing their problem. Responding to this last question should help them clarify their plan and take ownership for carrying it out.
Never forget that you cannot work harder on someone’s problem than they are willing to work. This is their problem, and these are their solutions. They get to walk this out–that is how they will grow. You can’t help someone grow by taking their problem away. Your job is simply to support, encourage, and champion them to follow through with their plan. You are offering incredible strength to them simply by being there with them, showing love and compassion as they work through the problem-solving process, and believing they are powerful enough to make changes.
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