How to Help Someone Make a Big Decision

It's easy to feel overwhelmed by big decisions: How you can help

Posted Nov 28, 2014

Big stuff, big decisions. How do you help? Some suggestions:

If they’re emotional help them calm down. If your husband is threatening to quit after an extremely hard day, if your son is wanting to forego soccer because he finished a game sitting on the bench, if your best friend just had a horrendous fight with her boyfriend last night and is crying, the problem is the emotion. Problem-solving goes out the window when emotions flood those prefrontal lobes and shut them down.

Don’t tell them they are blowing things out of proportion and they need to calm down. Instead just listen, let them vent. Once they’ve cooled off gently suggest they sleep on it and that you can talk the next day. 

Don’t make it about you. Your husband complaining about his job isn’t an invitation for you to start complaining about yours. Stay focused on the person you’re helping, not yourself.

Resist giving advice unless directly asked for. There’s a good chance that any advice you may give is going to tied up with your own values, fears, projections. You tell your husband that he can’t quit because the thought makes you freak out about money. You tell your son that he needs to hang in there because you remember and regret the times you quit things as a kid; you tell your friend to dump the boyfriend because you have your own relationship issues and she can vicariously act out your own stuff.

If they point-blank ask, go for it, but be careful. Sort and say your biases upfront.

Try to find the problem under the problem. Quitting the job, sport, relationship is a bad solution to another emotional problem beneath – your husband is bored to death, your son feels he’s not as good as the other kids, your friend is actually afraid of her boyfriend’s anger. You want to help focus on it – the problem, the end – and avoid getting lost in the means.

Tap into their ambivalence. The fact that they are talking to you and have not acted signals their own mixed feelings. Ask about what is causing them to hesitate.

Ask “what if” questions. What if you talked your supervisor about your feeling bored? What if you quit the team, would you miss your friends? What if you and your boyfriend went into couple counseling? Like brainstorming what you’re doing here is stirring the pot, raising a lot of issues and emotions to see what eventually settles.

Settle and circle. Don’t push for a decision right now. Let the impact of your conversation settle. Let it go, then circle back later.

Map out next steps. Once you do circle back, determine next steps – your husband doesn’t want to talk to his supervisor but is willing to set up a time to talk to HR. You will go with your son to talk to the coach at the next practice and help your son ask about ways he can improve his skills. You friend likes the idea of couples counseling and you say that you’ll ask around as well for names of possible therapists.

While the content of decisions always changes, a healthy helping process is always the same. You want to resist the urge to grab their hands and march them out their forest of indecision; instead you walk beside them, helping them discover their own path.