Stop Solving Problems! The Value of Wondering and Asking

When you were young, did you listen to the radio and hope your favorite song would come on because it was the only way to hear it? Did you go to a Blockbuster Video with options of movies to rent because you knew your first choice might be out? During dinner table conversations, did you wonder what the history of something was, with no way to find out short of going to a library, and hoping that a book would be available that could give you the answers? Of course, all three of these scenarios seem so foreign in the internet age. We can access any song in history at a moment’s notice from the device in our pocket. We can watch any movie we want to see, even if millions of others are watching it at the exact same moment. And we can learn about the history of anything within seconds of learning about it for the first time. We’ve become a culture of instant gratification and instant answers. We no longer need to sit without resolution; we have become instant problem solvers. So it’s no wonder that when someone tells us something that’s bothering them, we instantly jump to providing solutions. All of which means we’ve become pretty bad listeners.

When was the last time you truly listened to someone without adding your own thoughts, opinions, agreement or disagreement? How do you know whether you’re truly understanding what they’re saying without your own filters editing it as they speak? My colleagues at LeadvantEDGE use a framework known as LRA – the three parts: 1) Listen; 2) Restate what you heard without editorializing; and 3) Ask an open-ended question. LRA is introduced early in every coaching series with executive teams precisely because listening well is such a change from our cultural modus operandi that it takes conscious work and practice to do it effectively. Every group I work with as part of LeadvantEDGE’s executive coaching team responds to this framework similarly – “I’m so used to wanting to get to a solution that I don’t think to ask questions to find out more.” Taking time to restate or paraphrase what the other person said does a few things: 1) It gives both of you a chance to check your understanding of what they said; 2) It gives them a chance to add any nuance or unspoken additions; and 3) It helps you take a breath and formulate a question that will explore the situation further.

As we’ve written about before, open-ended questions build mutual respect and deepen understanding of the issue at hand.Of course there’s a place to solve problems – but if we rush in too soon we might miss what the actual problem is, while also taking agency away from the person who’s talking with us. Quite often, I hear clients use open-ended questions that put them on the hook for additional work: “What can I do to support you?”, “What do you need from me?” In a future article, we’ll look at the use of questions that grant people their own agency and support them in being able to take action in solving problems without your direct intervention, but for now, how might you stop yourself from solving problems too quickly, and instead taking time to listen, restate, and ask?

This Week’s Tip:

In conversations with others, notice any rush you feel towards solutions. Hold yourself back. Whether or not you use the framework of LRA, try to check your understanding of what the other person is saying, and find out more from them. After you’re both confident that you understand them, then you might work together on brainstorming some paths forward, but only then, and only together.

Try this out this week, and let us know how it goes in our Facebook group! We’d love to hear from you. As always, you can subscribe to our feed here, or sign up for our weekly newsletter to get these articles directly in your inbox.

Published by Ian Jackson

Ian Jackson is the founder of Building Bridges Leadership, which works with individuals, teams, and organizations to create authentic community in the workplace. He also writes children's fiction and teaches creative writing.

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