I like solving problems. It’s thrilling. You dig up its root cause, rack up a list of what you need to take it down, form an objective and act on it.
So I am the go-to person when others around me struggle. I happily devise methods for my parents to get chores done efficiently, advise friends lost on their career paths, or chip in with ideas and offers to help someone with a new project.
I admit that sometimes, I get so bent on solving a problem that I don’t stop to consider if it comes across as unsolicited help.
The moment I hear about a problem, I immediately come up with a plan of action and prod my would-be advisee to put it into effect.
From my point of view, I’m helping. It’s my way of showing encouragement. I see windows of opportunity flung open to make their lives a little clearer.
But sometimes in my haste to help, I don’t stop to think what my actions mean.
I wouldn’t have known that my readiness to give second opinions could be a problem until I read about this man charging strangers for his. Like him, I have amassed information so obscure, it’s almost useless unless shared. So I put myself in his shoes: What if I were the one offering this service at a price?
Two things sprung to mind. First, if anyone were to pay me for a second opinion, I’d better make sure that it’s worth paying for.
Second, wouldn’t it be great if we could tell if someone coming to you with a problem wants a solution, or simply wants a listening ear?
Sometimes, they aren’t asking for information
Often, they aren’t coming to you for want of information. With the Internet, anyone can use Google (use reliable sources please!) and become, if not an overnight expert, then at least not a clueless newb.
So why do people ask?
Once, when a classmate was unsure of her project, she didn’t check with our tutors, she asked what I was doing instead. While both of us were doing the same assignment, I had approached it differently. So instead of pointing out what was unusual in her work, I shared with her my method and rationale.
It dawned on me that others seldom ask for an objective answer or a full analysis to a problem, rather they want to hear about your experience.
When someone comes to you with a “I don’t know what to do with my partner/relative/colleague/friend” or “How can I deal with that situation?”, don’t immediately start with a “you shouldn’t have done that, here’s what you should do instead…”.
But even as we share our experiences, remember that just because something worked for you, the same solution might not work as smoothly for someone else. As someone who prefers dealing with problems openly, I find it difficult to communicate with those who want them solved discreetly, for example.
We process other people’s situations based on our own understanding and experiences. We have to beware accidentally running roughshod over the person we want to help with our advice.
Once I told my parents that my throat felt dry and scratchy, they immediately told me to stop eating so much fried food. They didn’t realise that I wasn’t anyway because I strongly dislike eating anything greasy. So their advice, while well-meaning, was misplaced. I nodded, smiled, switched off and moved on.
Even when someone asks your opinion, respect theirs. I’ve learnt to start with a “Okay, this is really just my opinion” to let others know I’m not pushing anything on them. My experience may be worth $5, but who’s to say theirs is worth any more or less?
Walk into a conversation seeking to understand the other person, instead of diagnosing and fixing their problems. A simple “Oh no, are you ok?” could let someone know that they can share more. Whether it’s a “my boss is so unreasonable!” or “my online orders are late again”, instead of telling them to suck it up (even politely!), why don’t say “tell me what happened” first?
Sometimes, they aren’t asking for a solution
Another thing I’ve learnt is that someone talking about a problem isn’t always asking for a solution.
A friend I know was laid off due to the pandemic. His co-workers appreciated his work, but they were downsizing so they couldn’t keep him. Knowing that he had no control over this situation, I heard him out instead.
A surefire way to ensure that you don’t speak when you’re supposed to listen is simply to ask. “Would you like my opinion?” or something along these lines will give your friend the option to listen to your take or to continue giving theirs.
And don’t be too quick to get upset if someone rejects your opinion. It could be that they have already considered your solution and rejected it even before coming to you. Remember that they have to live with the decisions they make, we don’t.
I’m not saying that you should back off immediately if they decline your offer to help though.
There are other ways to be there for a friend. Lending a listening ear or validating their feelings lets them know that you’re by their side as they go through the rough patch. Sometimes, that might be all someone needs, especially if it’s a situation that they seem to have little influence over.
How to get a good second opinion
It takes two hands to clap and two people to have a conversation. To those seeking an honest opinion, be specific about what you need.
If you just want someone to listen to you, make it clear. If you just want validation for what you’re doing, say so.
Saying things like they help to steer the conversation to a place that not only benefits you but the relationship you share with that person. And don’t be afraid of being direct about what you want. As someone who has often been approached for advice or a listening ear, I am happy that my friends trust me enough to be honest with what they want.
Whether you’re seeking or being sought for help, both sides need to set aside their egos to have conversations that leave everyone a little wiser.
It’s not about imparting knowledge or offering solutions. It’s about finding wisdom; to not only listen for the sake of replying. It takes courage for someone to open up about what they’re going through, and it takes willingness for the other to accept without judgement.
It’s not always easy. Even now, when I hear about other people’s problems, I still find myself thinking: “Seriously? There’s a way to get around this.”
But instead of blurting what my inner voice is shouting, I’m just going to keep listening. Because I want my opinion to be worth something.
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