running with metaphors
(pictured: in-process office space for the hearth chaplain!)
in my work a a midwife, a chaplain, and a human being, one of the most difficult and important lessons that i've learned is how to sit on my hands--how to, in essence, "do nothing". you'll remember the refrain from earlier posts. no fixing. no saving. it's incredible how difficult it is and how much willpower it takes to override that drive. helping (the active version of it, anyway) is so fundamentally programmed into us that we almost can't... well... help it.
and there's certainly a place for active helping. if a midwifery client has wild nausea, i'm not just going to say "mmm, i hear you, that's hard"--I'm going offer remedies. if a friend is about to make (in my estimation) a very dangerous decision, i'm not going to say "sure, that's something you could do--let's explore that"--I'm going to warn against it for concrete reasons.
all of this to say that solutioning does have its place--we just tend to overdo it. not all areas of life are "fixable", not everything is a problem in search of a solution, and we as outsiders are never going to be the source of the best, most relevant, most functional solution for some of the conundrums that our loved ones face. that's hard to hear, and it's deeply, deeply true. if you don't believe me, think back to a time in your life when someone, out of love and affection for you, suggested a solution to a problem that you would never, ever choose for yourself. i can think of plenty. tons.
solutioning, then, is sometimes ok and sometimes not the right thing, and learning to tell the difference can involve a lifetimes's worth of discernment wisdom--eeek! one thing we can always do though, especially when we're uncertain, is listen, reflect back, confirm that what we're hearing is indeed what's being shared (seek clarity), and ask curious, honest, and open questions in an effort to help someone explore their own problem or situation. if that's clear as mud, here's a concrete example of what this can look like and why it can be transformative for people:
example 1: deeply human but (likely) deeply unhelpful
person 1: "you know, my mom is sick. the doctor is worried that it might be a really advanced form of cancer based on what she's seeing, but we're waiting on test results. i know she's 85, but i really don't want to lose her--i'm not ready."
person 2: "that's so terrible, i'm sorry! oh gosh. uhg. i mean, who wants to, but if you're looking for a bright side, isn't it so great that you've guys have gotten all of this time together? i lost my mom when i was in my 20s and would have loved the extra time. i totally feel you on that. could you take a vacation together or something? you know, make the most of your time?"
the analysis: this response, so deeply human and so deeply rooted in a desire to connect and support, makes a couple of common missteps. though it starts out strong, with affirmation of the weight of the situation, it jumps from that right into "bright-siding" (newsflash--not helpful), and from there into listener-centering (again, this story isn't about you and doesn't need you to connect to it personally), and from there into unsolicited advice (which asks the speaker to then do the labor of addressing/declining/accepting in some way). a classic trifecta.
example 2: curious, honest, open, and (likely) helpful
person 1: you know, my mom is sick. the doctor is worried that it might be a really advanced form of cancer based on what she's seeing, but we're waiting on test results. i know she's 85, but i really don't want to lose her--i'm not ready.
person 2: that's so terrible, i'm sorry! oh gosh. uhg. when did you find out? (they answer) what sorts of emotions and feelings have come up for you in thinking about this? (they answer) how does your mom seem to be feeling about all of this? (they answer) what are next steps in her care? (they answer). know that i'm here for you whenever you need to talk about it, if that feels helpful."
the analysis: like the person in example 1, this listener has started out with an acknowledgment of the gravity of the situation, but instead of fixing anything or connecting/re-centering personally, they've invited the speaker, though curious, honest, and open questions, to explore and express what's going on for them a little more deeply. they've invited the speaker to share a narrative experience, to identify and share feelings, to interpret and connect someone else's feelings into their own, and to organize logistics with a projection into the future. it's curious because it's driven by person 1's experience not person 2's, it's honest, because person 1 couldn't possibly know the answers to the questions they're asking, and it's open because the questions don't elicit blunt yes/no responses.
(*side note: level-up the response in example 2 by finishing with, "i'd love to bring you a meal this weekend and will drop it on your porch in a cooler. what are your dietary restrictions?" (concrete offer to support) rather than "let me know if there's anything i can do" (abstract offer to support).)
i don't mean for the differences between examples 1 and 2 to sound clearly recognized and easily applied--they aren't. the work is hard, and for most people it's a constant effort. it's hard for me, even when it's on my mind to do better, even when i'm trying to teach it to others. it's a process. always. to that end, one of my goals for the "everyday chaplaincy" posts is to offer tiny tools that might be helpful to you because they've been helpful to me. in the spirit of gentle solutioning, try it on and see if it works. if it does, plant it and let it grow. if it doesn't, leave it and keep on trucking!
a tool for the work: identifying and engaging with metaphor
as you're looking for approaches to introducing a little less solutioning and a little more listening and active engagement into the support and space-holding that you offer others, it can be helpful, especially if you feel at a loss for what to say, so listen for metaphors in what people share with you. this can be done in one of two ways: either a comparison image can be directly shared by the speaker ("i wanted to speak, but i felt a dry ball of yarn stuck in my throat") or comparison images may come to your mind as you listen ("when i hear you talk about this, i get an image of XYZ in my mind--*does that sound right?").
*always seek clarity on fit if you're the source of the metaphor. you'll either get a "yes! that's it exactly!" or a "no, it's more like PQR." either response is magically helpful.
once you have a picture in your mind, a stand-in, a reference point, use that image to help you ask useful (curious, honest, open) questions. engage the parts of the thing, and let that engagement steer the conversation. for instance, maybe your friend is describing their partner as a vacuum, problematically sucking up all the air out of a space or situation, always drawing out of, never pouring back into. you might ask, "so i'm curious... what would gently tapping that "off" switch look like? and what comes up when you think about that? how do you feel in your body when you imagine less of a draw on your energy and more of a give and take?"
you haven't suggested a concrete solutioning action for your friend to take to take--you've heard what they said, noticed the picture that they were painting, and engaged with the proxy object. in that moment, when the person shares a comparison and you talk about their problem in terms of that comparison, you've committed to speaking a common language. you have a common metaphor. you can both turn a thing over in your hands, hold it, interact with it, relate to it, think about it, and talk about it.
for another example, if someone you love is accumulating what they feel like is too much stuff and they feel stifled by and trapped in their hoard like a tender little herb in a flower bed overrun with weeds, you might ask, "i'm hearing that your flowerbed is overrun and it feels overwhelming, is that right? what would it look like if you just tried to tidy a corner or that flowerbed, rather than feeling overwhelmed at the whole yard? what would that look like? what do you feel in your body when you think of just pulling the weeds closest to you to make a little more room for sunlight and air?" i haven't said "throwing things away"--I've opened up a space in their mind, via the metaphor that they shared, where they can define what solutioning would mean. garbage? organization? donation? maybe they aren't weeds after all? that's up to them.
listening for and engaging with metaphor isn't for everyone, but i challenge you to experiment with it. as people are sharing with you and expressing themselves to you, just dip a toe in and see if you can hear in pictures. that's step one. step two is using what you identify or see as a jumping off point for asking deepening questions that will help you to be a better, more effective listening presence. get curious about what's growing in their garden, see if you can help them sort out how many distinct pieces of yarn form that knot in their throat and what they might do, if anything, about them, and ask when it is that they feel that lead weight in their bellies, and what's helped with similar feelings in the past.
be brave. don't worry about being perfect. just try it on and see what it feels like to walk around in it for a while. let me know what you find.
abby hall luca
the hearth chaplain