Human resource professionals—along with educators, clinicians and other groups—often lead with a high level of empathy, compassion and a desire to help others. Their fierce inner pleasers want to soothe other people, and they tend to take "false ownership" of other people's problems and battles. People like this also have a hard time setting boundaries. And when those boundaries become compromised, they tend to absorb everyone's drama, leading to the likelihood of burnout, anxiety and compassion fatigue.
Learning how to communicate in a way that supports and motivates, rather than solves, allows people to maintain the boundaries necessary for preventing exhaustion, detachment and resentment. I have introduced my "Support. Don't Solve" framework to countless groups in hopes of not only educating them but also providing a guide to help compassionate professionals and leaders avoid the pull to consistently fix and respond to urgency in a way that negatively impacts them.
The insistent need to fix, relate, solve or quickly give advice defuses the "magic" that can occur in any dialogue. It's overpowering and erases the opportunity for others to properly process their current hurdles and gain their own repetitions (reps). Both of these are essential for building confidence and resilience.
Most people did not have the luxury of growing up in a family full of active listeners who created consistent, safe spaces for them to effectively problem-solve and work through difficult issues with a healthy framework of support. One word carries a great deal of power and can impact relationships of any kind—control. Leaders, parents and even friends can get a bad rap for being too controlling. This is typically triggered by fear, insecurity or distrust. Perhaps there is a prominent level of doubt circling around the thought that someone just "won't deliver" or execute something correctly. Therefore, objectives shift and responses to questions or issues are centered around the desire to control, accommodate or fix.
Think of the classic group project in school. There was usually the person who demonstrated their high investment and stock in the assignment. The others quickly assessed that they might be able to sit back and watch the go-getter pick up the slack, fueling a dynamic of imbalance and dependency. Others would look to the go-getter for structure and view them as someone who would carry the weight if boundaries were not set and maintained. This dynamic is still highly present in partnerships, marriages and in the workplace.
5 Steps to Support Without Solving
My "Support. Don't Solve" method can be applied in any relationship to maintain boundaries, increase authenticity and secure a balance that benefits those involved. The beauty of this process lies in the fact that it can be executed by anyone who strives to be a "space creator" and longs to help and empower others.
Step 1: Validate
The goal is to make an effort to comprehend what someone is trying to communicate verbally and nonverbally. This requires presence and the ability to decode their message to meet them where they are at. This step does not include sharing your own experience and relating or giving advice. It is about connecting and creating space. The other person is in the driver's seat, and you are there to guide.
A lot of people think of validation as agreeing. That's not necessarily what it is. Validation is your effort to let that person know that you are trying your best to understand the emotions they're conveying, whether you agree with them or not.
Step 2: Empathize
As the saying goes, "Put yourself in someone else's shoes." Empathy is the ability to truly connect and relate to how someone else might be feeling. It is not about assumptions or, again, making it about you. It can be expressed without words or accompanied by a concerned facial expression. It can come in the form of a response such as, "It sounds like the last few weeks have been incredibly intense and draining."
Maintain the focus on the individual for whom you have created space. The goal is to keep the person talking and externally processing. This step also aims to build trust and authentic connections.
Avoid the instinct to try to relate by saying something like, "Oh, that just happened to me last week!" That may come from a good place—you want to share and normalize it for that person. But such a response can kick the talker right back into a listener role.
Step 3: Inquire
The goal of an effective supporter or listener is to create a space to ask questions that encourage the person to process their thoughts and gain self-awareness. Rather than immediately sharing your two cents, start by asking questions. Some example questions you might ask at this point:
- What do you feel like your options are?
- What can you control?
- What can you let go of?
- What would happen to you if … ?
- Have you experienced something similar before?
- How can I best support you?
Questions like these can help the person build the processing skills that they maybe did not develop when they were children. Questions are a great way to demonstrate that "I'm here for you." This will positively challenge people and provide them with an opportunity to balance their emotions with logic. It's a practice that effective leaders and coaches live by to empower those around them. Questions will not only help keep your boundaries in check but also prevent you from experiencing compassion fatigue.
Step 4: Motivate
In this step, you are trying to uncover the person's strengths and help them balance out or confront any concerns, self-doubt or overwhelming feelings with logic. Don't act on this stage too prematurely, though. Meet the person where they are, but challenge any thought patterns that are merely triggering unnecessary stress or negativity.
Perhaps remind the person of a time when they recovered or felt similar feelings and was able to navigate the hurdle or identify a solution. The ownership is theirs. You are there to support, guide and combat thoughts or feelings that could lead to stagnation. Keep the ownership in their court, but reiterate that you are on their team.
Step 5: Reconnect
The final stage involves circling back. This practice solidifies the supportive nature of this approach. It is a way to check in on someone after a conversation has taken place. Circling back is not a one-size-fits-all step. It can look and be executed in a variety of ways based on the relationship and circumstances, so be creative! The purpose of this step is to demonstrate your care and concern. It lets someone know that they are worthy of your thoughts and the energy it takes to revisit what was originally discussed. Some examples of a comments and questions that you can use to circle back include:
- Hey, I have been thinking about you after our conversation and wanted to check in.
- How are things going? Are there any updates?
- How have you been feeling?
- Is there anything I can support you with?
This step involves a high level of empathy and emotional intelligence to identify when to touch base and what form of outreach might be best received and most effective.
The bottom line: In your quest to become a space creator, you'll discover the transformative power of adaptability and resilience. Life is full of unpredictable moments and uncertainty, but your ability to respond with empathy—and without taking false ownership—will allow you to continue to nurture and not fall victim to compassion fatigue and burnout.
When presented with a question or topic that has emotion interwoven in it, refrain from trying to immediately fix or solve. Honor the fact that everyone's filters, emotional expression and problem-solving skills are unique and influenced by a variety of factors.
This way of supporting and interacting with others, like anything, takes repetition and deliberation. This is not only a commitment to those you interact with, but also to yourself. It is a tremendous attempt at attaining clarity for your roles. Don't lose your vibrant passion for serving and guiding those around you. Just remember that this too can be simultaneously done while honoring you and your boundaries.
Leah Marone, LCSW, is a psychotherapist who works with adults and teens. She is also a corporate wellness consultant and speaker on anxiety and resilience. Her book, Support. Don't Solve, will be released in 2024.