Try this with your colleagues at work: Tell them you got a phone call from your parents, saying that they need you to help them in their house this weekend, but that you have already agreed to help another friend move house. Then tell them that you have called your friend and changed the date, and they are fine with that. Before you explain this last fact, though, take a sip of coffee. By the time you swallow the coffee, you will have two or three solutions presented to you. Often, when people start to tell us their problems, we immediately start looking for solutions. This is the ‘default’ human nature, to instinctively try to help. This impulse is increased if we spend our time in work solving problems (and most of us do work with people, and so spend all our time solving problems!)
However, as with our experiment, most people have already thought about their problems in a little greater depth before they relate them to us, and so our automatic response can seem at best overenthusiastic, at worst, dismissive. When people tell us what has happened to them, we must first of all decide if they are in fact telling us about a problem. They may be relating an interesting story, or gauging our reaction, or perhaps even boasting, if they themselves have already worked out a genial solution. Until we know what is expected of us, it may be best to delay reaction.
How can we tell what the other person wants from us? Why not ask them for clues? “How does that make you feel?”, “Have you any idea what you will do?” “How do you think I can help?”. Questions like these will clarify the issue without being too aloof. You might also avoid volunteering to do something you don’t need to.