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Why is it so hard to resist ‘fixing’ things?

Humans are problem solvers - we are good at fixing things and we are compelled to do so as a means of survival. My favourite discovery in Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow was that humans have an in-built desire for shortcuts - a drive to solve problems using the least possible amount of effort. We prefer to use the information we have in front of us and don’t naturally seek additional information.

I wondered whether this desire for shortcuts could help to explain the ubiquitous ‘fix-it’ culture that we see in our public services. Does our innate drive to reach solutions quickly (amongst other obvious influences such as social and organisational pressures) play a role?

Add empathy into the mix and our desire to ‘fix’ things may be perpetuated further. As a practising clinical psychologist, I find it hardest to resist offering solutions when people appear to be struggling the most – as if empathy intensifies the urge to ‘fix’. We don’t want people to suffer – so it makes sense to find an answer and fast!

But is this the most helpful response? In some situations a fast solution is appropriate, such as with urgent medical care. But if a person has a more complex problem to solve, then a question is likely to be more useful than an answer.

Why can’t I fix it?

How many times have you given your friend in distress the same advice, but they haven’t taken it on board? Maybe your solution isn’t right for them, maybe they don’t feel confident enough or maybe they just want to be listened to. Yet we keep dishing out advice hoping that one day our friend will listen, because after all – it’s a great solution! We carry on because it comes naturally and it feels good when our advice helps others, it gives our self-esteem a boost. It’s hard to remind ourselves that this strategy is often futile when the urge to provide a solution is so strong.

We know from the research and the abundance of coaching tools that are now available, that often the best way to help people is to build their confidence and to connect them to their own motivations for change. 'Good help' involves starting conversations that ask what matters and why; it involves sharing power with people and uncovering their unique motivations for change. When writing the Good Help report (which explores how you can best help people to take action), I wondered whether 'good help' still isn’t mainstream practice because of its perceived effort and natural tension with our instinct to ‘fix’. 

It may appear to take longer to find the right solution but it's likely to be more effective once found. This presents a cultural challenge to public services that are under pressure to react quickly.

What can I do to resist the urge to ‘fix’?

If I were to offer two top tips I would suggest:

  1. Become aware of your desire to ‘fix’. See if you can become more aware of your urge to jump in with a solution. In these moments, see whether you can explore the person’s own capabilities to generate a solution by asking a question to understand their situation better, instead of providing an answer.

  2. Share the load. Remind yourself (even if you are in a position of authority) that the person you are helping has power and responsibility to take action. They should have ownership over their own decisions, you can only guide them by understanding their unique story and motivations for change.

If we can hold ourselves back a little from responding in a reactive way to others’ problems, we might have a better chance of helping them. This doesn’t only depend on our individual ability to stop and listen, but on the priorities and values of the organisations in which we work. The Good Help report offers some excellent ideas for how services can be designed to promote an approach that supports people to feel hopeful, identify their own purpose and confidently take action.

Author

Esther Flanagan

Esther Flanagan

Esther Flanagan

Senior Programme Manager

Esther joined the Health Lab in January 2017 and is working in the social health team on a range of projects.

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