"Can I talk to you?".

The natural instinct of a people in the knowledge business is to solve problems. The focus on helping others, which hopefully most of us have, doesn't help matters in this case. Over the years, many people have come to me and asked some version of the question "Can I talk to you?". 

My first instinct, for the longest time, was to listen just long enough for my mind to form its own image of what the problem was. At this point, it would start running the options and possible futures for what solutions to suggest. It's obvious to the speaker that you are not giving them your full attention, most likely because you start interjecting with additional questions or even suggestions. Often, people are even happy that this is happening. Who doesn't like to be handed solutions to their problems?

What's wrong with that? It sounds great, you are helping people!

After several years, I found myself on some people's speed dial. This started to become a problem. Which is when I was made to realize: You are giving people fish, not teaching them how to fish. Therein lies the crux of the difference between what I was doing and what I needed to. I didn't come to this realization myself, I have had the good fortune of having some great mentors in my professional life who helped me realize this. Of course, this is the same message that many great leaders and coaches have shared for a long time.

Employ Reflective and Active listening, rather than jump to suggestions / solutions

Learning about this was one of those “Aha!” moments. It is very easy to understand and notice everywhere when you know to look. It is, however, extremely hard to implement. It takes a lot of practice and behavioral change, which is always slow.

Over time I have realized that listening has many advantages when you are seen as a leader / coach. It is not just for those whose role makes them a manager of people. Below are a few that I have noticed:

  • People own the solution to their problems, so they are more likely to advocate for its implementation
  • People get an immense boost to their self confidence
  • People eventually become more self sufficient in solving their problems
  • You are helping people set themselves up as a leader / coach
  • You are reducing people's reliance on you, gaining time to pursue your own goals
  • You are helping people get to the root cause of the issue / problem rather than solving just the symptoms on the surface

So you are saying just sit and listen? That sounds easy!

Sometimes people won't have a problem they need to solve. They just want to vent (don't we all!). While this is healthy in spurts, its always healthier to redirect their energies to identifying the root cause of what is causing them grief. There are a few important things I have learnt when being on the receiving end of a good old vent session:

  • Don't collude with the person venting - keep your own thoughts and feelings out of the discussion
  • Let them vent for a bit before starting to divert the discussion
  • Divert the discussion to root cause and action items by asking pointed questions - I always thought the movie / television version of a counselor asking "What do feel about that?" was a little cheesy, but it got me thinking. Some good questions that have worked for and on me are:
    • Which specific action(s) of this person(s) makes you feel that way and have you spoken to that person about the fact that you feel this way?
    • How would you have done things differently in that situation and have you given this suggestion to the person(s)?

All of this is easier said than done. I still struggle with applying some of these techniques myself. However, I have found this useful and will continue to work on improving my application of Reflective and Active listening to leadership and coaching (self included) situations. 

If you have experience applying these techniques effectively, would love to hear other things that worked for you. If you haven't yet used these, I hope you find this useful, please do share any experiences.

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