“My wife is mad at me again.”
I’d been coaching Mark for a few months and his focus had always been on work. So I was surprised when he started this coaching session talking about something personal.
“I got home from work last night and my wife was making dinner. She started talking about an issue she was having with one of her co-workers. Darcy, it was so obvious and simple what she needed to do! So I told her. You’d think she would be thankful, right? But instead she huffed out of the kitchen muttering that I could finish making dinner. And now she’s given me the cold shoulder since.”
There was a lot to unpack there.
I asked Mark what pattern he’d been noticing.
“Well this is the first time she’s given me the silent treatment, but we’ve definitely had conversations similar to this before. She comes to me with a problem, and I assure her it’s not that bad and proceed to tell her how to fix it. But instead of being grateful, she changes the subject.”
Having developed a strong foundation of trust with Mark, I decided to be playful in challenging his thinking.
“Well Mark, this isn’t that bad and it’s actually really easy to fix. Just send your wife some flowers.”
“Darcy! This is my marriage. You really think flowers are going to fix this?”
At that moment, Mark’s energy changed. I asked him what was happening.
“I feel like crap. It doesn’t seem like you’re hearing me. And you’re minimizing my problem. What you just did is what I do to my wife every time she talks about work. No wonder she’s mad.”
Fixing isn’t the only way to solve a problem
If you’re good at solving problems, chances are you’ve found success—personally and professionally. Not only that, it feels good to be the person who can “fix it,” doesn’t it?
It’s likely you’ve also been on the receiving end of someone trying to “fix” your problem. You start telling your friend a story and all of a sudden you’re hearing about how they dealt with a similar issue. Sometimes that can be helpful. But more often, it makes you regret bringing up the issue at all.
So how else can you be helpful when someone comes to you with a problem? Simply put, don’t make it about you. There’s a growing body of research showing that validating someone else’s feelings provides more comfort than “fixing” their problems.
One of my favorite YouTube videos is It’s Not About the Nail (it’s less than two minutes long, so if you haven’t seen it, it’s definitely worth your time to take a look now!). When I show this video in a workshop, I can see all the fixers in the group get uncomfortable within the first 30 seconds. One person will inevitably exclaim, “But it is about the nail!” at the end of the video.
Would she be better if she addressed the nail in her head? Sure! But until her feelings are acknowledged and validated, she’s not interested in focusing on anything else.
Accepting instead of fixing
There are times where fixing is necessary. But if you notice you’re not getting the response you’re expecting (like Mark with his wife), it’s likely time to explore some other choices.
One of those choices is the Thoughtfully Fit practice of Flexibility. When you practice Flexibility, you choose to accept the other person exactly for who they are and for what they need at the moment (and this can require a big stretch). You don’t try to change them or fix them—even if you think you know what’s best for them (and even if you’re absolutely, positively certain they’ll feel better if they take that nail out of their head).
Here are some examples of what this could sound like:
Instead of saying, “That’s not so bad.”
Try saying, “I can hear how frustrating this is for you.”
Instead of saying, “That happened to me, too.”
Try saying, “What do you wish would happen here?”
Instead of saying, “Here’s what you should do.”
Try saying, “How can I best support you right now?”
That last question was the one Mark asked his wife.
Her response? “I just want you to listen.”
So Mark went to the fridge and grabbed a can of beer. His wife started talking about her day. Mark took her request seriously and really listened. He repeated back what he was hearing, maintained eye contact and kept his focus on his wife. Before Mark even finished his beer, his wife said, “Thank you so much. I think I have a better idea of what to do now. I’m so grateful for you! This was super helpful.”
At our next coaching session, Mark reported back. “It didn’t feel like I did anything. But she was so happy. So the next day, I grabbed a beer again and asked her to tell me about her day. She was thrilled! It’s become part of our daily routine. And while sometimes I’m frustrated because I can see so clearly what she should do, having an enjoyable evening with my wife is way more enjoyable and important.”
One-Minute Core Workout
So how can you practice Flexibility and stretch to accept people for where they are at, instead of trying to fix their problem? It always comes back to your core.
- Pause. When you notice you want to solve someone’s problem or tell them what to do, Pause.
- Think. How else can I support them right now? (It’s not cheating if you ask them that question directly instead of guessing.) How can I accept and validate where they are at this moment?
- Act. Listen and provide support, instead of fixing. (If you find yourself fixing, time to Pause again to Think about how you can get refocused.)
As you might guess, Mark found success practicing Flexibility with his wife. Next week I’ll share how this strategy impacted his “fix it” mentality at work. In the meantime, try enjoying your favorite beverage during your next conversation and see what problems you solve!