Support vs Advice & Holding Off Solutions

post by abramdemski · 2021-02-23T01:12:33.156Z · LW · GW · 6 comments

What I'm calling support vs advice is a fairly standard division. Both kinds of discussion start with one person talking about something that bothers them. In a support conversation, they're looking for empathy, and the other person shows that they care by listening, showing that they understand, and emotionally comforting. In a problem-solving conversation, they're looking for solutions, and the other person engages by making suggestions. This distinction is important to recognize mainly because it's easy for the second person to get confused about which type of conversation they're in, and engage in the wrong way; in particular, offering solutions when the other person wants support can be pretty bad, because a person who wants support can perceive advice as criticism. Here's the standard amusing youtube link.

I'm not sure what to call it; I think it's been discussed on LessWrong before, but I'm not finding it by searching. Other possible terms for it:

LMK what the more standard terms for this are, if indeed there are any.

Anyway, I'm not writing this post to communicate the support-vs-advice model; rather, to name a third conversational mode which has some advantages of the other two.

I'll tentatively call this a problem-oriented conversation.

First, note that one of the main ways to show empathy is to show that you care about what's going on with the other person, and to demonstrate that you understand. To listen well, get curious [LW · GW].

Second, note that it's not advisable to propose solutions right off the bat. People come up with better solutions if they first discuss the problem in more detail. Hold off on proposing solutions.  [LW · GW]

You can probably see where I'm going: in a "problem-oriented conversation", the second person responds with curiosity to the problem, asking questions instead of proposing solutions. They hold off proposing solutions, instead just trying to understand what's going on for the other person.

Consider:

The problem-oriented mode is not without its own problems, however.

I've recently found myself in a few conversations where I try to take a problem-oriented stance (sometimes as 'transmitter' and sometimes as 'receiver'). Some issues:

Still, this strikes me as an important mode of conversation.

6 comments

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comment by Kaj_Sotala · 2021-02-23T16:42:19.304Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

This was an interesting read, because my first thought was "the problem-oriented mode isn't a third mode, it's just what the advice mode looks like when it's done right"... until I came across your list of issues and thought that huh, I guess that it is a distinct mode after all.

Come to think of it, the problem-oriented mode seems similar to coaching [LW · GW], and coaching manuals do explicitly say that coaching is not about offering solutions, but rather it's about asking clarifying questions that help the other person figure out a solution themselves. So then the modes might reflect varying points in a space with three dimensions: amount of support, amount of offered solutions, and amount of clarifying questions. 

What you're calling a problem-oriented mode sounds like it's closer to coaching on the "clarifying questions" dimension than the two others are, but given that it's still aiming to eventually involve proposing solutions, it's not totally that.

comment by abramdemski · 2021-02-23T17:44:41.640Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

What you're calling a problem-oriented mode sounds like it's closer to coaching on the "clarifying questions" dimension than the two others are, but given that it's still aiming to eventually involve proposing solutions, it's not totally that.

Well, to clarify, I meant that you can still eventually propose solutions because you don't have to be stuck in the problem-oriented mode forever rather than that my definition of problem-oriented mode allows proposing solutions.

So then the modes might reflect varying points in a space with three dimensions: amount of support, amount of offered solutions, and amount of clarifying questions. 

I would want to clarify what "support" is, since part of my idea here is that asking clarifying questions can itself provide some emotional support. Some concrete actions which might constitute support:

  • Validating the other person's feelings as legitimate.
    • Verifying that their response to the situation makes logical sense.
    • Verifying that what they are feeling isn't weird (that it is "normal")
    • Stating that their feelings are legitimate
    • Telling a similar story about yourself, to show that you have experienced similar things
  • Asserting support for the person.
    • Stating that you are there for them, want to help, care about them, etc.
    • Concrete reassurances, EG "I will never ____" 
    • Showing social allegiance by denigrating "the other side" (if applicable)
  • Showing that you understand.
    • "That must feel ____" (correctly describing the other person's state)
    • Talking about a similar experience you've had.
    • Making sympathetic satements, EG, "Yeah, that person is just awful"

Lots of these things feel like they could easily be the wrong thing, depending on the situation; this makes me think "support" is this complicated thing which can't really be described by concrete conversational moves too well.

comment by Smaug123 · 2021-02-23T12:14:35.082Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

For some reason I can't find any relevant hits with Google, but I've heard "support vs advice" described as "sympathy or fascism" before. "I want to moan at you" vs "I want you to take over and solve my problem".

comment by abramdemski · 2021-02-23T15:43:50.111Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Haha, what a terrible choice of descriptors! I mean, it gets across the point of view of the "sympathy" side, which is arguably more important than getting across the other side (since I've more often heard about the error of giving advice than the opposite), but... how unsympathetic ;p

comment by dacz · 2021-02-23T06:52:49.634Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

This mode is about finding/discussing different frames to the solution. That’s probably why the solutions should be deferred - it will immediately stick with given frame. sometimes people are not comfortable to step out of the frame(s) they already explored.

comment by Stuart Anderson (stuart-anderson) · 2021-02-23T05:33:38.800Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

"What have you tried and why didn't it work?"

Zero understanding of the problem space required and automatically pulls away from irrelevant emotions and towards solutions.

I don't have to care and a lot of the time I don't have to understand much, all I need to do is only accept personal responsibility from the other party

It's also a really good way to figure out who's just a narcissist.