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There’s a simple question I have started to ask people in my life, and it’s been very helpful for my relationships. Here’s the question: Do you want help or feedback?

The Fixer

In life, my tendency is to be a fixer. It’s just how I’m wired. When someone tells me about a problem, my mind is working double time trying to figure out a possible solution. When I come up with an idea, I want to share it.

People Don’t Always Want a Solution

Here’s the thing: Sometimes people aren’t looking for help or feedback.

This happened with my wife the other day. She was sharing about a problem she was having with work. Immediately my mind went into problem-solving mode, like it usually does. We started talking about possible solutions, but the conversation broke down pretty quickly, and Jenn got frustrated with me. Why? She wasn’t looking for advice. She just needed me to listen and provide support.

A similar thing happened at work not too long ago. One of my colleagues emailed me about a student issue. My first impulse was to help my colleague figure out a solution to the problem. But they hadn’t asked for help with a solution. They were simply keeping me informed of the situation.

Ask the Question

If you’re a fixer like me, one simple way to avoid these frustrating conversations is to ask a simple question: Do you want help or feedback? Just ask. Sometimes people are looking for help or feedback, and sometimes they aren’t. You don’t know unless you ask the question.

Asking the question is respectful. It doesn’t automatically assume the other person wants some of your “great advice.” It’s also other-oriented. You are tuning in to the other person and asking about their needs. You give them permission to share more about what they need or want from you.

Once you get a sense of what they need, you can move forward and take the conversation in a more productive direction. If they want help or feedback, then it’s okay to problem-solve with them. But if they want something else (e.g., listening, support, a shoulder to cry on), then you can provide that instead.

Take Home Message

People don’t always want help or feedback. Sometimes they do, and sometimes they don’t. The key is to ask whether they want help or feedback. Once you get the answer, you can move the conversation in a productive direction and help meet their need.

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