Why I try to present options, not give advice

By CECILIA VORFELD | May 2, 2019

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COURTESY OF CECILIA VORFELD Vorfeld tells her trainees to give options, not advice in A Place to Talk

The semester is coming to a close and so is my time as a trainer for A Place To Talk. I am most proud of my co-trainer and trainees who have all done such an excellent job over these many weeks of training and grown so much. The good news is that I will be the Internal Training Director next year! So, if I have convinced you to become a great listener, apply. Spring or fall, you are most welcome. Reading this column will have definitely taught you a thing or two.

To end this semester, I want to talk about what we address as the final skill with our new members that go through their 50 hours of training in a semester, including mental health first aid training. We talk about options. 

As you probably already know, we do not give advice. At all. Ever. And advice can come in many forms. You can give both indirect and direct advice and we want to do neither of those things when listening to a peer. The closest we get to that are options in A Place To Talk.

Options usually come near the end of your conversation where you have been listening to someone for a while. That conversation would have started off with some small talk, some clarifying questions, getting a grip on the situation at hand, contextualizing it a little, followed by identifying feelings. Most of what you want to be asking about will be feelings: clarifying feelings, helping the speaker take ownership of those feelings and exploring them, and more. Just lots of feelings.

You can always paraphrase to clarify what you and the speaker have discussed such as, “Correct me if I am wrong, but it sounds like you feel X, Y and Z”. Once you have really delved deep into those feelings, you may feel that the conversation is getting a little cyclical, like you have covered everything you need to. That’s when you can start talking about options.

We leave these to the very end because we never want to rush anyone to find the solution to their problems. People come to the room to talk and maybe eventually come to their own conclusions about what they should do next, but we give them that space and time to contemplate their feelings, knowing that our intention is not to tell them how to solve all their problems.

Now that we have got to this stage, what do I really mean by options? Options are about still letting the speaker lead the conversation, have the autonomy to choose whatever they want to do, but informing them of possible next steps they can take. Identifying options is a great way to start, even as basic as asking “What are your options?”. It may give that person a chance to think about the next best step for them. 

I always like to focus on self-care, because that is super important and often ignored, especially when someone is going through a tough time. Asking a question like “Taking all of this into account, what have you been doing to take care of yourself recently?” brings that person down to Earth, especially when conversation about thoughts and feelings can get rather abstract. You could refer to something in their past, asking them “How have you dealt with this before?”

Often people know what is best for them to do to take care of themselves, so they may have even had the answer once, and forgotten, or want to adopt an old solution to help now. You could look to the future, asking them “What are you going to do tonight to deal with this?” That may be something as simple as going to bed (which I strongly encourage. Y’all don’t get enough sleep and it scares me sometimes. Please take good care of yourselves. You are all amazing human beings and deserve a good night's sleep).

Options are very valuable for reflecting on what has been said and discussed, then thinking about the best thing to do after talking about those things. You can help them explore their options, but ask a question such as “How would you feel about doing that?” My all-time favorite options question starts with “In an ideal world…” I have found that, for myself, this can be hugely helpful to reflect on what my goal is in the situation. 

Unfortunately, this is not an ideal world and sometimes there are not solutions to all situations. Just talking about feelings can already be a huge help to someone. Just being there for someone and spending quality time with them to listen to what they have to say is a great thing to do for another person. I encourage you all, especially with finals ahead, to support one another and give each other some time to truly listen to one another.

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