Caroline Sweatt-Eldredge

The Connected Life

So What's The Problem With Problem-Solving?

Want to communicate better in your relationship? Listen up!

Posted May 01, 2018

Pexels/CC0 License
Source: Pexels/CC0 License

It’s happened to all of us.

The one you love tells you about a stressful situation giving them some trouble. Maybe it’s a confrontation with a boss or family member; maybe they are feeling annoyed with a friend or coworker. They vent the frustrating details of their experience as you pay careful attention to the story. After pausing for a moment of reflection, you offer a reasonable solution, expecting gratitude for your depth of wisdom and insight. After all, that’s why they came to you, right? As you notice your loved one’s mouth twist into a frown and hear their defensive response, you wonder how things suddenly went so wrong.

If you are like most of us, you’ve had more than one conversation with your partner unexpectedly veer off course. You’ve likely had interactions when your partner starts off mad at another person and ends up mad at you. The culprit behind these misunderstandings may surprise you: Research shows that trying to solve your partner’s problems gets in the way of feeling connected and can quickly derail a conversation, leaving each of you feeling misunderstood and alone. When we rush to offer a solution, we miss out on valuable opportunities to feel close and better understand the ones we love.

If our problem-solving is counterproductive, why do we do it? When we offer a solution or propose a different way of looking at the problem before our partner has specifically asked for our advice, we mean well most of the time. Often, we are motivated by compassion and love: We want to help the ones we love navigate a difficult situation by offering our solutions. We don’t want them to hurt or continue experiencing the negative emotions they feel. We think that offering our guidance is exactly what they need to feel better as soon as possible.

If our intentions are good, what makes our rush to problem-solving so problematic? The culprit is often a mismatch of expectations: Most of the time when our partners tell us about a difficult situation they are experiencing, what they want is to vent their feelings, be heard, and feel understood. When humans are stressed, we seek proximity, closeness, and a sense of togetherness with the ones we love; sharing our difficult or stressful experiences is a way we reach for connection. When your partner is seeking to feel heard and understood while you are seeking to offer solutions, this can make them feel not heard or understood at all. In fact, offering solutions before your partner has asked can make them feel like you don’t trust their judgment or ability to solve their problems on their own.

Ultimately, the problem is that we don’t enter into relationships to receive advice, guidance, or solutions. We join together with another person so we can feel understood, known, and connected in the midst of life’s struggles. We are people to be loved, not problems to be solved. If we were looking for someone to continually offer guidance and tell us what to do, we would hire a coach or consultant--not a spouse!

The next time your partner comes to you describing a difficult or stressful situation, try to listen to understand. Ask questions about how they feel and what they experienced. Take their side and put yourself in their shoes so you can understand where they are coming from. Try not to play devil’s advocate or make it your responsibility to get them to see a different perspective. Instead, focus on truly understanding their perspective. Let them know that what they feel makes sense to you. Validate their emotions and stay tuned in to their point of view. If you have a brilliant solution you are just dying to offer, wait until after you’ve really and truly listened to what they have to say and understand where they are coming from; then (and only then!) ask if you can share your thoughts.

Remember, your goal is to help your partner feel heard and understood in times of stress and focus more on the connection between the two of you than the solution you would offer. By resisting the urge to immediately solve your partner’s problems and instead focusing on listening to understand, you can strengthen the bond you share and deepen your sense of togetherness.