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The One Question You Should Ask Before Supporting Someone

On January 23, 2021, the following tweet was shared by Alexander James (@DrunkScribe) on Twitter:

“Some years back my wife and I got into the habit of asking each other ‘do you want comfort or solutions’ when the other was having a bad time. That one sentence can save us from an argument 9/10 times.”

As of the writing of this article, it has been retweeted over 21.5K times. The support for, and agreement with, this simple phrase is seemingly universal: 

“Do you want comfort or solutions?”

When was the last time somebody asked you that question? Unfortunately, you may have never been asked that question. As humans, we tend to jump to problem-solving when someone close to us is struggling. It’s natural; of course we want to make them feel better. And if we have a solution in mind that we believe will solve the problem, why wouldn’t we offer it?

However, this tweet opens the door to a different type of conversation — one where we simply listen and sit with the person and their pain. In the therapy world, we call this “holding the space”; it is an approach that allows the person to speak what is on their mind and openly express any painful or difficult emotions in a safe space, free from judgment.

You can probably relate; let’s walk through it. How many times have you come home from a tough day and started venting to your partner, friend, coworker or parent, just to have them respond with, “Have you tried…?” or “What if you just…?” or the seemingly innocent, “If I were you, I would…”

If you aren’t in a place where you want solutions, this question probably infuriated you. “Can’t you just let me vent?!

Suddenly, you are arguing with someone who was just trying to help you; you’re more upset than you were before, the person trying to help is confused and unsure where they went wrong, and the potential for effective communication just went out the window. 

So, what did go wrong? 

Like I mentioned before, human beings are awesome. We love to help solve the problems of those closest to us when they are struggling. But sometimes we get it wrong. We read the situation wrong, or we assume we know what someone needs in that moment (and you know what they say about assuming…), and we end up making the situation worse when our only intention was to help make things better.

This is where those six words can come into play. Next time someone comes to you with a problem, a bad day or a mental health struggle, practice holding the space. 

“Do you want comfort or solutions?”

And it’s not enough to just ask the question. Make sure you listen to the response. If the person says they want comfort, and you start offering solutions anyway, that defeats the point. 

What does offering comfort look like? It may seem simple, but like I said before — we’re conditioned to give advice and solutions. Instead, practice the art of just being there. Offer active, reflective listening — nodding, words of agreement, gestures of understanding (“mhmm,” “I hear you,” etc.). Give the person your undivided attention. Put your phone away and focus on being present. Ask the person if they would like physical comfort, such as a hug or holding their hand (if appropriate). Do not judge or ask too many questions. Meet the person where they are. (There’s another therapist slogan for you!) 

Sometimes we feel better just knowing that someone else is listening to us in our deepest and darkest moments. It’s helpful, in and of itself, just to know we are not alone in our suffering or our frustration. Effective communication in relationships doesn’t necessarily have to involve words all the time. It’s enough to just be there.

Photo by Omar Lopez on Unsplash

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