The righting reflex: A natural human tendency
- “Why don’t you try….?”
- “I think….”
- “What I would do is…“
- “You could try...”
Certainly, the natural human tendency to want to fix any problems we see before us can be very strong, since our minds are, in essence, problem-solving machines (Harris, 2008). However, there are dangers with responding in this way.
Dangers of succumbing to the righting reflex
- Feeling one-down: Having a sense of feeling a bit inferior to the person who is offering their sage advice to your problem or situation.
- You don’t understand: Thinking that the person offering solutions hasn’t quite understood the key aspects of your reality. “Hmmm. I don’t think you get it.”
- Feeling disempowered: Suggestions can stop us from thinking for ourselves, when we might otherwise have been able to come up with a way forward of our own. “Thanks for that. You didn’t think I could get there by myself?”
- Feeling resistant: Experiencing an urge to point out why the person’s solution won’t actually work. “Yes, but…”
- Being on different pages: You may not see the relevance of the solution to your situation, or the solution may lead to a different outcome than the one you want. “No, that’s not it.”
- Feeling a lack of ownership: Someone else’s idea just doesn’t feel like yours. You may feel less invested, or less inclined to carry it out.
- Abdication of responsibility. Following the other person’s advice, with the sense that if things go wrong it’s their fault. “Okay, if you say so.”
Clearly, we are treading into potentially dangerous waters when we quickly succumb to the righting reflex, risking provoking resistance or leaving the person with a sense that we just don’t understand. More importantly, the act of offering solutions actually prevents us from demonstrating a number of other behaviours.
What the righting reflex prevents
- To listen: If we’re telling someone else our ideas, or talking about our own experience, we’re not listening to them. Rather, we’re sticking our own oar in, or grabbing the wheel and steering down a path of our choosing.
- To give the person space: Sometimes talking things through helps a person to clarify what is bothering them about their situation, and if we jump in then we prevent them from doing this. Similarly, sometimes people just need to talk, and if we take over it interferes with their ability to do so.
- To understand: Have we really understood? We might have misinterpreted what the person is saying, or not understood an important detail. Offering solutions prevents us from discovering this.
- To demonstrate understanding: If we’re offering solutions, then we’re not necessarily communicating our understanding of what the person has said, so the person doesn’t really know if we’ve ‘got it’ or not. Think about times when someone else has communicated their understanding of your perspective, and you believed they understood. Powerful, isn’t it? What does it do to your willingness to keep talking with that person?
- To express empathy: If we’re offering solutions, we aren’t communicating an understanding of how the person may be feeling; sometimes, this is all that is wanted!
- To find out more: If we’re offering solutions, we aren’t encouraging the person to keep talking, or making an effort to find out more about their reality.
Alternatives to offering solutions
- Listen, and show that we are listening.
- Give the person space to talk.
- Try to understand; ask questions that encourage the person to clarify or elaborate.
- Check our understanding by telling the person what we think we’ve heard and summarizing the key points (“So if I hear you correctly….”).
- Express empathy: “Sounds like you’re feeling….”, “You sound….”
- Find out more: Asking questions that encourage the person to keep talking.
If we can do those things, we stand a much greater chance of getting onto the same page as the person and helping them to feel understood. In addition, it may provide them with a space in which they develop greater insight into what is happening or begin to see a way forward for themselves.
2. In what circumstances or relationships might it be helpful for you to respond with some of the alternative behaviours described above?
Miller, W. & Rollnick, S. (2002). Motivational Interviewing: Preparing People for Change. New York: The Guilford Press.