My absolute favorite question anyone asks me when I’m struggling is, “Are you wanting empathy or a strategy right now?”
The people in my life know I love this question.
They ask me this when I’m finding a situation challenging or when I just need to vent about something frustating. Sometimes they ask this when I’m having an upper limit problem and they notice that I’m having a lot of feelings about celebratory things.
I fucking love this question.
When people ask me this question, I feel understood and heard. I feel connected to them. My friends know I love this question. They know that even though I often value their strategic insight, sometimes what I really need is just their emotional presence with my feelings. More often than not, I crave empathy more than I want advice.
One of the reasons it’s hard to ask this question is that offering empathy is not always our first instinct. We’re taught that our value to others is to fix their problems, give advice, or cheer them up. But when we offer advice before connecting with someone’s feelings, we can leave that person feeling unheard. Offering unsolicited advice can give the impression that we don’t think the person we’re supporting has the capacity to generate solutions on their own.
This question is also about communicative consent. It gives people choice about how they want to be supported. I have a deep value for communicating with my loved ones in ways that are mutually respectful. Things like unsolicited advice and cure evangelism are neither enjoyable nor helpful.
If at some point I want advice, those suggestions tend to land better with me after I get empathy. I notice I need space made for my feelings before I can put a strategic plan into place. This might be right after an empathic conversation, or days later. But rarely do I immediately want advice after I’ve shared something emotional I’ve experienced.
My hope is that this question (or some variation of it that sounds more “you”) can bring a little more ease to your life and your relationships.