How to be a Thinking Partner: Finding a solution that really works
Have you ever noticed how when a friend or colleague starts to describe a problem they are having you want to jump in and solve it? Maybe you have even done just that, given advice, solved a problem, suggested a solution, or told someone what to do. As one explains “it makes me feel good, like I’m a valuable friend”. How do you find they react to your offering of advice, your attempt to solve their problem? How do you feel after you have told them what they SHOULD do? Even if they do follow your advice to the letter, what kind of message are you giving to them when you take over their problem and provide a solution for them?
We all want to be experts in our lives: as professionals, as parents, as colleagues, as friends. We, as people, love to solve problems and “help” by giving solutions and telling people what to do. It makes us feel valuable, it makes us feel useful, and it makes us feel knowledgeable. And yet, when people tell us what to do, how come it makes us feel so crummy?
As a new year begins and new intentions and goals have been made, how many of you have had someone tell you how to reach your goal, how to do your job, or what they feel would be best for you? Now, how many of you have done the same to others?
In our experience, we find people aren’t overly happy being told what to do or how to do it. It messages that we aren’t capable of solving our own problems, thinking thru our own solutions or have the knowledge, value, expertise to complete our job or life effectively. This hierarchal approach puts us in a position where we may consider our ideas or actions wrong and the teller’s ideas right, often making us feel badly about ourselves, judged and times disrespected. Not the most effective way to build and nurture relationships!
So, how can we make a change? When we feel we don’t have the ability, the information, the understanding or the emotional objectivity needed to make a good judgment call and a wise decision, how can we get feedback from others that feel’s constructive rather than destructive? When someone comes to us sharing problems, challenges, or questions how can we switch from wanting to be the teller/ problem solver while still feeling valued in the conversation and relationship? Here are some helpful quick tips how:
How to stop being the “teller” and start being a thinking partner:
1. LISTEN. Based on our experience, when there is a need to make a decision, ask for advice, or emotional objectivity requested, more often than not the speaker just wants to be heard. Just because someone is sharing a story, a conflict, a challenge, or a need for a decision with you doesn’t mean they are seeking advice or there is a problem to be solved. The speaker could just want to be heard. It’s really important to take the time to listen to the speaker so you can hear where the conflict or challenge is for them. If we don’t take the time to hear them correctly, whose conflict or challenge are we wanting to “solve”? Ours or theirs? (Check out 3 levels of listening on how to be a better listener)
2. ASK QUESTIONS: If we don’t listen clearly, we can’t dig deeper or be curious about where their conflict lies. While it might be faster and more satisfying to just tell them what to do or how to do it, if we don’t ASK them what they want or need out of the situation then who is this really about? Ask questions, preferably open questions! eg. How do you see resolving the issue? How could you see this situation differently? What do you want to do about it? What is it that you want? For those of you who really REALLY need to have your voice or solution heard, instead of telling them what you think, ASK them what you think. eg what do you think about ….? How do you feel about ….. ? Asking open questions allows the listeners to not be attached to the outcome or solutions, instead this holds the focus on the speaker so they can gain clarity and think through how they want to proceed. (Open questions are who, what, where, when, and how. Tell me more is also a great way to dig deeper into understanding their perspective and what they want. Why often carries notions of judgement and so we advise to use sparingly.)
Being mindful of the speaker by listening to them, hearing their perspective and asking open questions will allow the focus to remain on the speaker, what they want and how they see resolving their own issues. (Remember, this is about them not YOU). It is also an opportunity for learning as the speaker comes to their own solutions and resolutions. This approach builds trust in the relationship, it messages the listener (former teller) trusts the speaker has the ability, knowledge, and expertise to solve their own problems. It creates collaborative thinking partners.
How to turn a teller into a thinking partner
Instead of feeling like the person listening to you is telling you what to do, think of them as someone who will work with you to develop a solution that works best for you. Here is a tip you can try when you feel you are being TOLD:
1. ASK QUESTIONS: Once you have been told what you SHOULD do, it’s an opportunity to initiate the partnership. Begin to ask them open questions about what they have told you (eg. “What did you mean by that? How do you see that helping me? What could I gain from that? What about if I …..”), adding extra bits of information to help both of you gain clarity around the issue, while including your ideas so you can begin to work towards figuring out what you want to do. Even if they continue to own “your” (read their) solution and insist you need to ‘do it’, you can still gather this information and reframe it by thinking of it as sharing of ideas between partners to find the solution that works best for you.
At times, turning a teller into a thinking partner can be a challenge, and one worth the time and effort. As tellers aren’t aware of how much they tell, or how it makes others feel, simply stopping the conversation and being curious (eg. “While I appreciate you wanting to help me, I am wondering how come you feel the need to solve my problem?”) can be a great start.
The next time you are venting about an issue or really do seek the opinion of another, play with the notion of partnering with them to come up with the solution that will work best for you. Notice how you feel once you have finished this shared dialogue.
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