Hearing vs. Fixing: Are You Supporting How They Want to be Supported?

Have you ever shared a frustration, a sadness, or some other strong emotion with someone, only for that person to jump right into “fixing” mode? Or maybe even tell you why you shouldn’t feel that way? Maybe they even agree with you, but somehow their agreement feels diminishing of your own experience in some way. More than likely, that hasn’t just happened to you once – it’s probably happened more times than you can remember. Those situations can feel heartbreakingly disappointing – the person that you hoped would be a source of comfort instead took the focus off you, and your experience becomes less important than the pragmatic steps of “what’s next.” (Not to say there isn’t a place for this – this can be very helpful if you’re prone to paralysis from overwhelm, or cycles of depression.)

This all comes from good intentions and a will to support through practical help – after all, we’re evolutionarily built to help someone in need – but in our attempts to do so, we often miss the mark and do the exact opposite. My old colleagues at Quantum Learning Network / SuperCamp describe this as having “the GABS” – an acronym of four main pitfalls:

  • Grabbing the Glory – Taking the attention away and putting it on yourself. “Oh, yeah, that’s happened to me too; mine might have even been worse – let me tell you about it…”
  • Advising – Giving unsolicited suggestions of next steps. “Okay, here’s what you need to do…”
  • Belittling – Minimizing their experience. “You know, that’s really not that bad…”
  • Sidestepping – Latching on to an unimportant detail. “You said you hadn’t eaten lunch? Maybe you were just hungry and misinterpreted the situation…”

Almost every organization I’ve worked with as a facilitator over the last 25 years has taught some variation of the same technique to avoid the GABS and to instead be a supportive listener. It goes by many names – EAR, mirroring, recreating, reframing, restating, acknowledging… – but in essence they are all the same idea, which was summed up perfectly and succinctly by a participant in a workshop I led this week: When listening to someone sharing something with some emotion, “the key is not to fix, it’s to say I hear you, I see you, I value you.” So, practically speaking, what does that look like, and how can you practice it this week?

This Week’s Tip:

When listening to someone share something with emotion behind it, focus on hearing them fully rather than fixing, editorializing, or adding any value judgement (whether it be agreement or disagreement).

  • Show empathy through attentive physiology and expressions; note that empathy does not mean you are agreeing with everything they’re saying, but you are accepting that their experience is their experience.
  • Restate what you heard to check for understanding. “So if I’m understanding it right…” Use key words they said (especially strong emotions) without substituting them or adding your own. Finish by asking “Am I getting that right?” or “Are there pieces I missed?” to allow the other person to say anything you missed or anything they want to add now that they’re hearing it spoken by another person.
  • When the time is right, ask open-ended follow-up questions. This might not necessarily be during the initial conversation, but focus on seeking greater understanding rather than a specific and pre-decided next step.
  • Trust that the other person has agency to see possible next steps for themselves. If they don’t start to articulate these, you could ask “What do you think are some possible paths forward from here?” and listen to tbeir thoughts. Give advice only if they ask for it; if they don’t say it but you feel they’re asking nonverbally, check your understanding by asking if they’re asking for your advice (and give them full freedom to say no).

Try these out this week, and let us know how it goes! We’d love to hear from you.

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Published by Ian Jackson

Ian Jackson is the founder of Building Bridges Leadership, which works with individuals, teams, and organizations to create authentic community in the workplace. He also writes children's fiction and teaches creative writing.

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