As a physician, I’m often asked by family and friends to advise them, or at least to explain what might be happening with their health or in their interactions with medical professionals. It usually feels good to use my experience to help those I most care about. When a niece related the persistently condescending behavior of her primary care physician, I was happy to empower her by suggesting she seek out another physician who would appreciate her intelligence and involvement in her healthcare decisions. Most recently, a cousin called, concerned that her husband was ill but was refusing to go to the hospital. While her stated request was for advice, what she really wanted was to enlist the authority of my opinion as a physician in convincing her husband to follow her own request. Upon hearing that I agreed with his wife, he acquiesced, was admitted, and possibly avoided a life-threatening complication.
(Full disclosure: The interaction didn’t actually proceed that smoothly. I first suggested some other tactics, which only caused my cousin to become confused. It took a few minutes before I stumbled upon a more direct and authoritative approach, which was exactly what she was seeking.)
We each play a variety of roles in the hundreds of interactions we have every day. How can we be insightful and agile enough to play the right role? How do we maintain a sense of ourself as we shape shift between these various roles?
An often cited difference between men and women is women’s need to talk about problems and men’s proclivity to fix them. I have to admit that when it comes to my family, I often break this gender-based stereotype and switch into “fixit mode” when they want to discuss some issue that is troubling them. Fortunately, our very insightful daughter has adopted the tactic of simply saying, “I don’t want your suggestions – I just want you to listen.”
In the absence of the comfort that comes from a trusting, lifelong relationship, how are we to know what role might be most helpful? Is the person just wanting you to listen to him, is she asking for a solution, or is he looking for commiseration? While it may at first feel awkward, one simple question will cut through to what is really being asked of you and allow you to make the conversation more constructive and helpful.
Try asking, “What are you needing from me?”