Helping Others Think
A colleague or subordinate walks into your office and says, “I really don’t know how I’m going to ....” Before the words are out of her mouth, are you already working on the solution? Do you have three recommendations that he can use before he’s even sat down at your desk? All too often, as managers, colleagues and friends, we see someone else’s dilemma as an opportunity to problem-solve, after all, that’s what we’re good at,
If we could take a step back from the situation, we might first determine what our colleague seeking. Does she want an empathetic ear, a sounding board, a brainstorming partner, some counsel, or an answer? Most of us jump immediately to working out an answer; yet from the time we were five, we were pushing away the people who told us what to do. Consider what might happen if the next time you are presented with a dilemma, you ask the question, “How can I best help you resolve this?” Or “Would you like to use me as a sounding board or would it help you more if I used some questions to help you clarify your thinking?”
By using these simple questions, the ownership of the problem stays firmly with your colleague or employee. It is not your problem to solve; it is his problem. You have offered support. In addition, you have respected his capability to solve the problem; you will stay in the role of a facilitator.
Once you have established your role in the discussion, you will usually find it best to assist your colleague in stepping back from the problem, and in clarifying their direction. In his book, Quiet Leadership: Six Steps to Transforming Performance at Work, David Rock suggests using questions that focus on the “thinking” she has done about the dilemma. You might consider something along the line of this series of questions:
How long have you been thinking about this?
How clear are you about this issue?
How committed to resolving this are you?
Can you see any gaps in your thinking?
Do you have a plan for shifting this issue?
What insights are you having?
Are you clear about what to do next?
How can I best help you further?
The initial questions will help your subordinate clarify his objective, how long it’s been an issue, and how important it is to solve. Most people will have some thoughts about next steps and in the process of speaking about them, will gain additional insights. By the end of this conversation, your subordinate will be clearer on his direction, have identified the next step, know he has your support and will have retained ownership for the problem and solution. Notice too that the conversation focused on solutions, did not delve into the details of the problem and steered clear about wallowing in dramatics.
Occasionally, your subordinate or colleague may stuck and looking to you for guidance. Your goals should be assisting her to find a solution for herself. Refrain from offering “the answer”, as in, “this is what I would do.” Make an additional attempt at “What’s your gut instinct here?” If she is still stuck, you may want to offer alternatives in the form of suggestions. “Here are a few ways you might explore this question”, and end with “which of these seems like it might help you, or have these suggestions triggered any other ideas for you?”
Rather than solving problems for others, as a manager, let them retain the opportunity to learn the skills of solving their own problems, let them have the sense of accomplishment and the commitment that comes from the accomplishment.
For more on levels of thinking, see the blog “Choose Your Focus”.
David Rock. Quiet Leadership: Six Steps to Transforming Performance at Work (