When I was in my master’s program studying marriage and family therapy, I had a wonderful supervisor who taught me the #1 tip that I share with almost every couple I counsel. He had a way of making concepts understandable in common language that I loved, and he dubbed this tip the “poor baby technique”. I think it alone can improve almost any relationship (family, friendship, work, romantic).
The “poor baby technique” touches on the tendency for us to enter “problem solving” mode with our loved ones when they describe a problem or difficulty that they are facing. We tend to give unwanted advice or critique the way that they are handling or thinking about their issues more often than we simply listen. We do this out of a good place- we notice our loved one is in pain, and we would do anything to help them out or stop it. It’s hard to watch loved ones suffer, and it’s natural that we would want to see that cease.
Unfortunately, we are often completely out of control of making that happen, and we end up giving messages to our loved ones that their issues are solvable, and therefore they should stop talking about them and just go FIX them. We shut down their ability to process their feelings on an issue without taking immediate action or come to us for comfort. We also give an unfortunate message to our loved ones when we enter “problem solving” mode: that they are incompetent to fix their own problems and they need us to clarify things for them. Most adults in our life are competent and know their own lives and situations FAR better than we do. Most competent adults do not need advice, and when they do, they ask for it directly. I would estimate that maybe 1 out of 10 times a person comes to us with a problem to discuss, that they are looking for solutions.
If I had a loved one come to me with a problem and had to guess what approach I should take with them, I would ALWAYS consider utilizing the “poor baby technique” first! In fact, I think it is what our loved ones need from us the remaining 9 out of 10 times they come to us with a problem.
The “poor baby technique” is to simply CARE about the person and their issue by listening and offering sympathetic responses. We do NOT problem solve for them when utilizing this technique. The “poor baby technique” believes that the person is looking to us for acceptance, comfort, validation, and support- NOT solutions or even worse, criticism. While the person utilizing the “poor baby technique” may have solutions that enter their mind, they know that now is not the time for those, and they may bring them up later. The person utilizing this technique knows that the BEST thing they can offer to their loved one is just to listen and be compassionate to the struggle at hand- their loved one probably just needs to “vent”, maybe cry a little, and then will go on and do what it takes to solve their own problem! I like to think of patting this person on the back or giving them a little back rub when I describe this technique- you are their “soft spot to land” who accepts them even if they made a mistake, who encourages them to remember their good parts, who expresses your affection to them when they are down, etc.
When I teach this technique, I often go over a few ideas of what this may sound like to further make my point. The “poor baby technique” could sound like:
· I’m so sorry that happened to you today!
· I would be upset too!
· I completely understand why you feel rejected.
· I have had similar things happen to me, and I know it’s a horrible feeling.
· I am here for you.
· I think you handled things well (if that is a true thought).
· I would’ve made that mistake too!
· I see things the same way you do (if that is true).
· I can see how you came to that conclusion.
· I love you.
· I think you’re a great person.
· I’m here for you.
· You mean a lot to me.
· I have faith in you that you will figure this out.
· Let me know how I can help you.
· I’m impressed with the way that you are thinking this through.
· I’m glad you feel comfortable crying to me.
· You have been through some tough situations before, and you’ve always made me proud with how you have handled yourself.
· I can relate to what you’re saying.
· I think what your feeling is totally normal given these circumstances.
· You can cry to me for as long as you need to.
· You have every right to feel confused about what happened.
By simply listening and supporting, you are helping your loved one far more than you may realize. You are letting them know that they are not weird for having feelings, that you still hold them in high regard despite how others may have treated them, and that you are a person they can come to when they feel dejected or ashamed. You show them that you are not ONLY interested in them when they are doing well, being successful, or are unproblematic and easy to be around! You also are giving them a vote of confidence that they can handle their own problems just fine. If you feel an urge to give advice, you can always say “let me know if you want advice or solutions”. This gives your loved one the opportunity to accept it or decline based off of what they're needing.
When I teach this technique to a couple, everyone tends to agree that this is the response that they are looking for during times of distress. Most parties also say that problem solving is “too logical” for an emotional moment, and tends to end emotional sharing prematurely. If you are a problem solver, consider trying out this technique next time a loved one is venting to you and see if you notice any difference in where that conversation goes!
Written by: Kelly Birkhold, LCSW