Everyone gets stuck at some point. At work, in a relationship, or in a situation.
The uncertainty overwhelms (and sometimes paralyzes) us. And our emotions often worsen the situation.
At such times, we look for solutions on our own, going deeper into what we already know. This further compounds our condition because, as Einstein said, we cannot find solutions using the same mindset that created a problem.
It’s better to reach out to others for help. We get unbiased perspectives on our challenges. We learn how people who’ve already been there overcame their challenges.
Yet we avoid doing so. And for good reason.
Nobody likes feeling stuck. But people despise being judged even more. They worry about what others will think, what they’ll say, and how much their words will hurt, even though people who offer advice might be right.
Why Most (Correct) Advice Fails
When people who feel stuck reach out to us, we often fail to give them what they really need — clarity and hope.
Instead, we rush to solve their problems or let emotions get the better of us and shove our solutions down their throats. In our zeal to help, we further push listeners to close their minds.
You might argue that you’re doing what’s in their best interest. But think about how difficult it is for you to step outside your comfort zone even when you know it’s the right thing to do. Now imagine
asking commanding someone to do the same. Especially when they’re vulnerable, when the situation that appears as clear as a bright autumn morning to you, appears foggy to them.
How do you think that’ll work out?
That’s why people keep things to themselves. Or they rebel against advice that could get them out of the quicksand.
How to Make Your Advice Count
My friend Amit faced no such challenges. People (including yours truly) frequently reach out to him when they feel stuck, and walk away feeling better about themselves.
Being a stickler for processes, I asked Amit how he does it. “It just happens,” he said. But knowing that nothing “just happens,” I persisted.
One day, at our favorite restaurant, after ordering our favorite food, Amit elaborated on the five actions points that work for him.
1. Listen to Understand
Most people overestimate their ability to listen, just like they overestimate their driving skills. Probably because they equate silence to listening.
Being silent because you’re planning your response, waiting for your turn to speak, or distracted by other thoughts, doesn’t count as listening.
Amit listens to understand. He listens until the emotions drain out and what’s left is the real issue. When I speak to Amit, I can see how focused and present he is, relaxed yet listening intently. He extends the same behavior to everyone else.
But here’s a caveat. Over-listening can lead to the speakers rambling and getting stuck in a loop. So when you begin to hear the same thing over and over again, it’s time to move the discussion forward.
2. Ask Open-Ended Questions
People are clever enough to find the answers to their problems. Where they often struggle is in identifying the problem.
Open-ended questions serve as the most effective tool to identify this problem. They help you understand your counterpart better, and they also help you calm them down.
When people feel stuck, they go through a whirlpool of emotions. To make the ship sail smoothly, you first have to calm the waters down.
People feel calm when:
- They feel heard AND understood
- They feel reassured that you have their best interest at heart
- They feel hopeful about a solution that will work.
Asking open-ended questions helps you achieve this. It gives you enough content to summarize the situation through the speaker’s eyes in your words. In other words, it makes them feel understood. It also makes them more open to absorbing what you want to share.
When I reached out to Amit about a tough time I was facing with a client, he kept asking questions that began with why, what, when, where, who and how. And he listened.
Eventually, we reached the root cause of the issue — that while I felt the client didn’t appreciate my work, the truth was that I failed to deliver on my promises.
Resist the urge to jump into solution mode when you uncover a gap. Work with the speaker to discover the root cause of the stuck-ness.
3. Lay Out an Action Plan
Everyone who is stuck wants clarity on what to do. But nobody wants forcible commands that imply that your way is the only way.
Sometimes, people want suggestions on the way forward. Sometimes, they just need a sounding board. The more they speak, the more a solution becomes clear.
Once Amit and I identified the root cause of the issue between the client and me, Amit continued to ask questions like “what will you address first?”, “how will you do it?”, and “when will you begin?” Based on my answers, we worked out an action plan.
Each time he gave suggestions to add to my answers, he checked for my understanding with phrases like, “Does this make sense?” and “How does it sound?”
Your role is not to find the solution itself, but to facilitate the process of finding a solution. Here are two reasons why.
One, people know their circumstances and ability to execute the plan better than you. Two, people who feel like they came up with the idea are more likely to follow through on the action.
Discover a solution that benefits the person. Don’t direct them to solutions that YOU THINK will benefit them.
4. Tell them to Stop Feeling Like a Victim
The “world-is-unfair” syndrome can catch with anyone who feels vulnerable and overwhelmed. To get out of a rut, people first have to break away from this mindset.
Amit is never harsh with his words. But he ensures that he doesn’t coddle people. After he and I laid out the action plan, he told me that since it was my fault, I had to pull my socks and do the work.
Hope is the most powerful feeling you can offer listeners through the action plan. Then tell them to quit behaving like they’re drowning. You’ll see courage swim back into their eyes.
5. Know When to Back Off
The popular adage goes, “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink.”
People must take action to get themselves out of a sticky mess. Your role is only to offer advice and follow up to an extent. Nothing more.
People take action at their own pace. if you get upset or angry over them not taking action, or you try to hurry the process up, the burden of your expectations will weigh them down further. This won’t just hurt them; it’ll also affect your state of mind.
On a few occasions, I asked Amit about the status of people he offered to help. He merely said, “they didn’t get back to me,” and dropped the topic. This is why he remains peaceful and open to help the same people if they reach out again.
People want to feel empowered, jot judged. It takes mindfulness to make them feel that way and to fight the animal instinct of wanting to hog the spotlight for finding a solution.
Where would you (honestly) place yourself on the ability to help others get unstuck? Go ahead, assess yourself by connecting the dots.