Quite often in online forums, there will be an exchange something like this:

Q: How do I do X?

A1: Why do you want to do X?

A2: You shouldn’t want to do that.

Both of these responses might be accurate, but they are decidedly unhelpful to the questioner.

As the questioner in this situation, it’s important to do some reflection. I’ll often find myself in a situation where there doesn’t seem to be a good answer. A clear sign that I’ve reached this point is when I think I only have two choices and they’re both bad. Once I feel stuck, I can choose to ask for help. That’s never a bad thing.

I also try to think about how I got where I am. What were the circumstances, forces, and decisions that led me to my current dilemma. Often, I find that I can back up a few levels and make a different decision that lands me in a better place. Or I can push back on the circumstances and forces in order to make a different path possible.

On my best days, this reflection process helps me develop new habits. Those habits then keep me from the place where I’m even faced with questions where there are no good options.

“If you keep on doing what you’ve always done, you’ll keep on getting what you’ve always got.” –W. L. Bateman

Once I’ve internalized the new habit and started making different decisions, I can get myself to a place where I might even agree with the original rude responder: “I shouldn’t want to do that.”

Now I know why I shouldn’t want to do it and how to avoid the situation where I thought I wanted to.

As a responder, I try think about my own reflective journey and try to respond in a way that will encourage the questioner to follow a similar path.

When I’m tempted to give a terse answer to a question, I need to stop for a minute. The questioner has a legitimate need and truly believes that the question needs to be answered as asked. I keep this in mind to avoid becoming rude or dismissive. I try to come up with several reasons why the question may not actually be a bad one. I put myself in the questioner’s shoes. On my best days, I might even use some empathy.

It is possible that the question is an indication that the questioner has gone down a rathole and that some higher-level advice is warranted. But I have to earn the right to have that advice heard.

“People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” –Theodore Roosevelt

There are several ways I can respond.

The most obvious is to simply answer the question. I assume that the questioner has thought through the options and simply needs an answer to the question as asked.

If, after careful reflection, I’m convinced that higher level advice is needed and welcome, there are a couple of other options.

Depending on the immediacy of the forum, I might be able to ask some clarifying questions. Any questions I ask should clearly be a way of trying to gain additional context and understanding. I always need to make it clear that I’ve heard the original question and that I am being supportive and helpful.

If the forum is less immediate in nature, I might have to resort to a less interactive exchange. In this case, it might be a response like this:

To do X, you could try something like Y or Z.

However, often when I find a need to do X, it’s because of R. In that case, it might be better to back up a few steps and go this other direction instead.

That way, I’ve helped with the immediate felt need. And that gives me the opportunity to be heard on the deeper advice I’m offering.

Hopefully, I can help the questioner discover the deeper lessons to be learned and continue on a path to self-improvement.