Hi. My name is Rich, and I am a solver. Don’t look at me that way! There is a better than average chance that you are as well. It’s not a bad thing, in fact I think it is quite admirable. My desire to solve comes from being empathetic, and not wanting to see things that are broken. So, I use whatever I know to try and come up with a solution when I see something wrong or that potentially could be better.
So, what is the problem??
This question started with a deep Sunday morning conversation with my wife, as she is a fellow solver. Like me, she wants to jump in and help. At the same time, she looks to develop meaningful connections with people and wants to get to know them better. As do I. The problem is, if we identify an issue or struggle that someone is having, and immediately jump into “I have a solution mode”, are you really in a position to do so? Are you able to take what you know, your sum total of experiences, and make a fair assessment of what this individual is going through? Sometimes, you can…often times, the harsh reality is you can’t. Hence, the problem.
In your desire to solve quickly – as altruistic as your intent may be, many times you can do more harm than good.
Can you REALLY relate?
I am an introvert. No, really, I am! If I start talking to someone about my struggle with speaking in public, and he or she pulls from their personal experiences to help, they in fact may be an extrovert and can’t really relate to what I am going through. Or take my fear of flying. It is, in my opinion, irrational. Despite being a very rational person, I don’t like to fly. I am told it is because I have to give up control, that may in fact be the case, but discuss my fear of flying with someone who loves it? They struggle to relate though they will have plenty of suggestions. All of which I have heard, all of which I understand, none of which help me in my situation.
I have over three hundred associates who work within my “chain of command.” I may be able to understand from a technical perspective where they are struggling, and offer solutions, but how do I truly relate to their specific set of circumstances? Challenges, experiences, and perhaps even personal struggles that may be impacting them, and clouding my assessment of the situation. I could say something purely logical, talk about training, or following a methodical process, or “time management”, only to have it fall on deaf ears because in coming up with a solution, they may feel the same way that I feel when someone tries to offer me advice about my fear of flying, “YAYAYAYA....I GET IT!!” I have heard the same advice many times before, and as good as it is, you didn’t solve my problem.
Then you have cognitive and unconscious biases. I went to a seminar a year ago and participated in a session with an author / researcher who spoke powerfully about how her research shows that sometimes the smarter you are, the harder it is to filter through your own biases. (I swear, I will find the book and the author and post it, she was very insightful, but her name escapes me at the moment!) She spoke about how the more intelligent a person may be, and the more convinced they are that they are right, the more likely the person is to slant their view on the research presented based on their cognitive or unconscious bias, as factual as the research may be, and as much as an objective look could disprove their beliefs.
Given your vast and rich history and experiences, combined with your desire to solve and make a positive impact, you may in fact be “listening” to things in a way that fits neatly into an answer that you have already shaped. From the catalog of answers that you’ve given to those in similar situations, perhaps without truly understanding what you need to know. Or perhaps, from a desire to be needed, to show how much you KNOW, which validates why the person may have come to you in the first place. I have seen entire groups, teams, even organizations who already in their minds that they have the answer. They do their research, hire experts, bring people in for focus groups, only to credit what supports their preconceived solution and discard all other information. Challenging yourself and recognizing these natural biases is one of the most difficult, but necessary things I have experienced.
It starts with Active Listening.
How many times have you talked about, or talked to others about “active listening?” Workshops? Articles? Yeah, it is a pretty big deal. I think most of us try. However, when your motivation is to solve, often times you may be thinking of the solution while the other person is still talking. I may not have been listening intently enough to what is in their sight line because I was preparing my answer while they were still speaking. In doing so, I've likely missed key elements. Or the actual intent of the conversation and reasons behind it.
You may be thinking, in your best Olsen twins voice “how rude!” Stop though, likely your brain is processing thoughts so quickly that you may have a tendency to do this. Motivated by getting to an answer quickly. Or because you already “recognize” the situation. Breath. Slow down. I have started to consciously work on this by closing my computer, establishing eye contact, and trying hard to focus on what the person is saying without thinking as quickly about formulating an answer. Eliminating distractions like cell phones or other things that a multi-tasker like me tend to lean on, to not only show I am listening, but actually listen. I allow myself the ability to pause and process, even if that means a bit of silence in between the other person speaking and my response, as uncomfortable as that may be. How is that working out for me? It is a journey, one that I stray from often, but when I do actively listen, with intent, I find I make significant progress.
Get to KNOW ME!
I have a habit that I have formed through the years, a combination of my impatience, my need and desire to get sh!t done, and wide bandwidth of responsibilities which tax my ability to effectively manage my time. Someone could be half way through telling me about an issue and I am reaching for the phone to get someone on the other end who I feel can help solve the problem, or needs to more proactive in solving it. One day, a trusted associate stopped me in my tracks while I was making that very motion. A very calm person by nature, he slammed his hands on my desk and said, “I DIDN’T TELL YOU I NEEDED YOUR HELP IN SOLVING THIS, I JUST WANT YOU TO LISTEN TO WHAT I AM PLANNING ON DOING!” In my attempt to solve, I completely missed the point. Over time, I have gotten to know him, and others on my team, and while I do still reach for the phone on occasion, I do so less, and try to listen more (again, it’s a journey!)
When you flip the equation around, and spend more time getting to know someone versus telling the person what you know, you have the ability to gain a richer, a more meaningful connection. It may lead you to a better understanding of the situation from their perspective, allowing you to give more meaningful advice. You may realize that what was needed from you wasn’t a solution, but a sounding board or just plan a shoulder to lean on. Or perhaps that you may not be the right person to help solve this particular situation, and you need to help identify someone who can. Often times, someone just needs to vent, needs to be heard, so that they can work through the situation on their own.
There are times though…
All that said, you can’t go ditch to ditch. If everyone simply listens to understand without striving to solve, many of us will simply wander around aimlessly. Leadership, whether personal or professional, is about finding that balance. The balance between actively listening and getting to know someone, versus using what you know to solve a situation quickly and effectively depending on how time sensitive it may be. Decisions need to be made, actions taken, but starting with a better understanding of those around you, spending the time getting to know someone helps when you NEED to know what to do in order to march forward.
It isn’t easy, but it is a challenge worth facing in the name of continual improvement.