Menu of Options
One of the biggest mistakes that therapists, leaders, and friends make is asking someone “What do you need right now?” You may be thinking “Wait! What? I was taught that I should regularly ask that question to people in my life, especially if they are struggling, upset, angry, or in need in some way!” Yup, most people have been taught this question but if you stick with me I think I can convince you that there’s a better option(s).
I remember a particular occasion when I was in a training. One trainer put their attention on me and I totally froze. This particular trainer intimidated me a bit and with all the attention on me, I felt so afraid that I just couldn’t think. I didn’t know what to say and I was certainly not in a place to do a piece of work on myself. Sensing that something wasn’t right, he chose to check in with me.
“What do you need right now?” He asked me softening both his voice and his gaze. I just looked at him and I stammered.
“I...I...I don’t know.” With the increased attention and my failure to produce intelligent thought, I was adding a feeling of embarrassment to my experience. Eventually, I needed to excuse myself to the bathroom to release the tension and find a way to come back to myself on my own without the intensity of that kind of open-ended attention.
Let's talk about this very commonly taught question: “What do you need right now?” Or “How can I support you?” In many of the personal development and spiritual growth spheres, we are taught that this is a great question to ask.
They can be great questions for someone who is a little bit confused, under-resourced, or challenged but still grounded and connected to themselves. Some examples are;
Your spouse appears to be looking for something,
“What do you need right now?” you ask.
“I’m looking for the nice letter writing paper and envelopes, do you know where they are?”
You see a friend sitting with a grumpy look on their face.
“What do you need right now?” you ask
“Oh, I’m just angry about an interaction I just had at the bank, do you mind if we just talk about it for a few minutes so I can let it go?”
You have a student struggling with a piece of material or a movement
“What do you need right now?”
“I don’t understand this part, can you explain it to me a different way?”
For people who are overwhelmed, in a trauma response, angry, really confused, stressed out, or grieving, however, this question doesn’t help and worse, can leave a false impression. In those moments it often comes across as dropping your hands and saying, “I’m lost, please give me a solution to your uncomfortable feelings.” Or “Can you just tell me what to do here?”
The reason it isn’t helpful in those moments is that underneath the surface of conversation, what I'm asking is this:
“Hey, I know that you're stressed and doing a lot of work to just be in the room and regulate your nervous system. But now I want you to use your currently limited cognitive abilities to survey all of the universe's possibilities for support, even though you actually can't even contain or control your attention at this moment. And I want you to generate several possibilities. And then I want you to select one, have the wherewithal to identify what you want most that would most serve you, select it and then love and value yourself enough to speak for it out loud, believing in the possibility that the other person will be willing to give it to you, or in the case that they might not that you'll be able to manage your nervous system and be okay even if they say “no.”
Think back to the moment when my trainer asked me to generate what I needed in that moment. I was lost, scared, and small, my cup was full. I wasn’t able.
When we ask someone to do this psychological labor when they're overwhelmed, ungrounded, or under-resourced, it’s like asking someone who just had a car accident to solve a math problem or adding a plate to a full sink instead of actually helping with the dishes.
So what kind of responses do these questions in those moments get?
“It's okay. I don't need anything.”
“I don't know.”
Most of the time, you're going to get one of these responses if someone’s nervous system is too flooded, or if the thing they might ask for feels too unreasonable.
Let’s use the example of someone who is grieving. Often they simply have no awareness of what they need, what they can ask for, or what would feel good. They are in a world of pain, lost in the storm of emotions that are always painful and difficult to navigate. Even if they did know what they wanted, often it can feel like too much to ask for.
“I want you to bring me dinner every Tuesday for a month.” While this is a really common gesture of support, it’s also one most people don’t feel comfortable asking for, even when they know it would be helpful. People rarely ask for this, but many people receive it anyway and get deeply supported by it.
Another thing that people who are grieving want is, “I want you to sit silently next to me for an hour and just feel really sad about whatever you feel sad about with me.” Who feels okay asking for that? Not very many people, but when I was grieving, that was my favorite thing. I would go to a dance and just sit quietly next to a friend of mine whose mom had just died. Those were some of my favorite moments, but at that time I wouldn’t have known how to ask for that.
But I digress, often in those tough moments, most people either don’t know or don’t feel worthy of the things they want or need to be supported.
So, what do/can we do instead?
Offering a Quick Scan
Before I give you my favorite tool it’s worth mentioning that you can improve the question “What do you need right now?” a little bit by inviting someone in distress to put their attention on their awareness and by asking them a yes or no question.
“Are you aware of something that you're wanting or needing in this moment?” or “Are you aware of something that would support you with this?”
I think that what this question does is; instead of inviting someone to do the work of generating something, it invites them to do a quick scan, is there anything already in my awareness I know I want and am capable of asking for? Then they can simply say “No”, or “Yes, and I’m realizing what I’m really needing right now is...” If it’s a “No,” it doesn't invite the same kind of psychological labor. Still, this question puts the responsibility on the one in distress to generate solutions from an under-resourced place.
The Menu of Options
I developed a tool that has proven itself to me to be even more effective; The Menu of Options.
Many parents have actually learned this because they've had to learn it through the trials by fire of raising children. It isn’t effective to ask a child.
“Okay, sweetie, what do you need right now?” Because that child may not know, they likely don't even know what the options are and they may have never experienced some of the options that exist. This is often no less true with adults who are in distress, who are overwhelmed, who are angry, or who are in some kind of trauma response.
In some ways, people in distress are back in a moment of being their inner child. Unaware of their own power, their choices, and their potential impact they need care, and a powerful caring figure to help them find the ground of their adult self once again.
We use the Menu of Options by giving people a choice; just one option can be enough.
”Would it be helpful if I/you/we did x, y, or z?”
“Would it be supportive if you shared a little bit more of your experience?”
“Would you prefer me to sit in front of you, or next to you?”
“Do you want physical touch right now? Or would you prefer some space?”
“Would it be okay to talk about this for five more minutes? And then could I invite you to go and get some support from one of our assistant leaders if you need more support?”
Would it be helpful to join you in this experience and maybe express it through movement, or would you prefer we took the attention away from you right now?
I was delighted to discover some interesting studies that seem to beautifully match with this idea!
Here’s an excerpt from an article in The Harvard Business Review;
“In 2000, psychologists Sheena Iyengar and Mark Lepper published a remarkable study. On one day, shoppers at an upscale food market saw a display table with 24 varieties of gourmet jam. Those who sampled the spreads received a coupon for $1 off any jam. On another day, shoppers saw a similar table, except that only six varieties of the jam were on display. The large display attracted more interest than the small one. But when the time came to purchase, people who saw the large display were one-tenth as likely to buy as people who saw the small display.
Other studies have confirmed this result that more choice is not always better. As the variety of snacks, soft drinks, and beers offered at convenience stores increases, for instance, sales volume and customer satisfaction decrease. Moreover, as the number of retirement investment options available to employees increases, the chance that they will choose any decreases. These studies and others have shown not only that excessive choice can produce “choice paralysis,” but also that it can reduce people’s satisfaction with their decisions, even if they made good ones. My colleagues and I have found that increased choice decreases satisfaction with matters as trivial as ice cream flavors and as significant as jobs._”
When I learned this it evoked a sense of awe at the synchronicity and validated my ideas. I learned that we want a menu of options not just when we are having a hard time, but all of the time! Two things that strike me most about this study were that not only were people nine times more likely to buy the jam when they only had four options (you can correlate this with the Menu of Options) but that they ended up significantly more satisfied with their choice!
Let’s take a moment to appreciate this. I’ve found that questions like “What do you need right now?” or “Is there any way I can support you” resulted in a very small amount of support given and received (maybe one-tenth as likely). And my experience that using the Menu of Options led to way more support being given beautifully correlates with the research on choice paralysis and people’s relationship with jam choices. So, it would seem that it’s actually baked into our very psychology to be more likely to take support when only a few choices are offered and we are also more likely to be satisfied with our choice to do so!
Taking it Further
I’ve also found The Menu of options to work quite well with people who are angry. Let's take for example someone who is angry and yelling.
Student: “I DON’T LIKE THIS CLASS!”
Leader: “Would you like to share more about how you are feeling, leave the class or request a specific change?”
Or imagine you have a student who goes on a tirade that starts to take up more time than you are willing to dedicate to it.
Student: I CAN’T BELIEVE YOUR TEACHING THIS! ALL OF THIS IF FALSE INFORMATION, THIS IS BULLSHIT!....
Leader: “I’d like to interrupt you for a moment. (The Pause) Sounds like you have some strong values around this type of information. (Reflection of Values) I can really appreciate that. (Appreciation) Since we have limited time I’d like to give you two options. Are you open to exploring my perspective in this class and bringing your dissonance in the small group discussions, or would it be better if we had a call after class when I’ll be more able to address your concerns?” (Menu of Options)
As leaders often we meet moments that baffle us or leave us clueless. We think to ourselves; “How do I get myself out of this situation? How do I move forward? What on earth does this person need?” In those moments it can be alluring to externalize that part of our experience and ask our struggling participant for a cheat code to make the moment easier. “What do we do now?” or “ What do I do?” or worse, “How do I make this up to you?” or “How do I calm you down?”. In moments of struggle it can be helpful to have easy go-to options like...
“Would it be helpful if I guided you and the rest of the class in a simple grounding exercise for the next two minutes before we continue the class?”
“Would it work for you right now to go and have someone here join you for a five-minute support pod?”
“Do you want to know what I’m feeling right now or would it feel better to simply share and be heard?”
“How would it feel if I adjusted the exercise so that you don’t have to share if it doesn’t feel safe for you?”
“Would you prefer to spend 5 more minutes talking about this here all together or to chat about it for 15 minutes after class?”
Finding Agency in Options
After hearing options I’ve had many participants say,
“Those don't work for me but _______would.”
When they have options, they have something to push up against. This means that you don’t need to get it right, you just need to get some options on the table. That allows them to either figure out what they really want or choose between options that are better than the absence of support they might have been prepared for.
They also get something very important, a sense of what kinds of things are available. For those who feel that their needs or desires are a burden, which is a lot of people, making specific requests can feel like making an imposition on others. Often out of the fear that what would be available is a pat on the back when they feel that what they are really needing is 30 minutes of solid caring attention. The fear of their request (if they are even aware of it) being too far beyond what is available, can crush the desire before it ever gets close to someone’s lips. When we give options they can calibrate, they get a sense of the scope of options and generosity that would be appropriate for the moment.
So if we ask an overwhelmed person the question “What do you need right now?”, this will most often result in no support being given. But, if we use the Menu of Options, the distressed person is way more likely to select or share a workable option and get the support they need.
Through life, especially in group contexts and in close relationships our friends, family members and students will encounter moments and experiences that are simply too much. More than they know how to handle or deal with. The Menu of Options when used well, is trauma-informed, versatile, supportive, and a loving act of emotional labor. Play with it, practice it, get to know it. It can be a wonderful companion on your journey as a leader and care-er of others. It helps us show up in ways that people need when few others will.