support others better with this clarifying question

Do You Want to Support Others Better? First Ask This Clarifying Question

I’m a fixer. If there’s a problem, I want to try to make it better. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing–unless it’s not my problem and no one is asking me to fix it. It’s taken me a while, but I’m slowly learning a valuable lesson. When someone comes to me with a challenge they’re facing, I try to remember to first ask this clarifying question:

Do you want me to help you with this or just listen?

The funny thing is, since I’ve started asking this question, NO ONE has opted for advice or help of any kind. Are my suggestions that bad? I don’t think so. I just think most people need kindness–the kindness of someone being willing to be present for them and just listen.

How I Go Wrong with My Teenager

I kept finding myself in the same situation with my teenage son.

  • He comes to me with a problem or issue that was frustrating him.
  • I actively listen: make eye contact, nod, do not interrupt.
  • He pauses.
  • I ask a question or two to make sure I understand the situation.
  • I listen to his answers.
  • Then, I begin to share my own experience and ideas of how he could improve the situation.
  • He listens but insists that my ideas just somehow don’t apply to his problem.
  • Usually, he ends up changing the subject.

Kindness Doesn’t Always Involve Actively Helping

Where did I go wrong? I really did my best to listen to him. I wanted to help him. My heart was in the right place.

It’s not that my solutions were bad or my experience was irrelevant. They were simply unwanted. My son came to me with a problem, but he didn’t want me to help him solve it. He just wanted me to listen, to give him a chance to process it aloud and feel heard.

I wish I could say that I figured out a solution to this on my own. But honestly, it didn’t dawn on me how to avoid this communication stumbling block until I read about the strategy of asking the critical question: What do you need in this moment?

Helped, Heard, or Hugged?

In this article, Jancee Dunn describes how an elementary school teacher utilizes this kindness strategy. She asks her students, “Do you want to be helped, heard, or hugged?” The teacher explained, “The choice gives children a sense of control, which is important when they’re following school rules all day.”

For my loved ones, I vary the options depending on my mood and what I’m able to give at that moment. Because it’s important to be kind to yourself too. I’m not a touchy-feely person and don’t always want to hug it out. Often, I limit my offering to just listening or working together to problem solve.

Listening: A Skill to be Developed

Finding out what your loved ones need in the moment is an act of kindness and a critical part of skilled listening. And skilled listening doesn’t come naturally to all of us–it takes practice and know-how.  

I realized that as a fixer, I find myself thinking about potential solutions instead of paying attention to what someone is saying to me. That’s just one of my common mistakes. In my blog post, “Listening Skills,” I listed out the numerous ways I can improve my own listening.  That was posted last year. But that’s ok, I know it’s a process and the key is to keep striving for improvement.

Let’s Keep It Simple

I don’t want to make this complicated. We don’t need to be trained therapists to show up for our loved ones in the manner they need. Taking the first step of asking that clarifying question is already an act of kindness. It’s providing them an opportunity to express their feelings and thoughts on their own terms.

So, lead with your heart, listen with your ears, and use your mouth to ask that clarifying question, “What do you need in this moment?”

“Listening is one of the loudest forms of kindness.”


  • Rose says:

    Hi Patty! Love this post. I’ve been using the three H’s with my middle schoolers after I saw that article in the times. It has been really helpful and my kids like using it because they get what they want/need. And like you nobody wants my advice or solutions!!

    • Patricia Makatsaria says:

      I love hearing that this works for you too! It’s actually genius, and it has helped me stop handing out random advice – which my family appreciates. 🙂

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