When people seek out support for concerns, problems or even crises, we often feel inclined to offer advice. We want to alleviate the stress and solve the problem. We offer solutions that, most likely, the person we are addressing has already considered. As intelligent human beings, we dive into fixing mode — regardless of the futility.
The truth is, in most circumstances, we are powerless to repair.
The deeper truth is, in most circumstances, the person who approached us isn’t really asking for a solution. At the most basic level, people in distress want comfort. They want to be heard, felt and understood.
This starts with parenting but remains relevant right into the workplace. As parents, the moment our children tell us of hardship, we offer rapid-fire solutions that may or may not be feasible under the circumstances. What we fail to do is ask our children what they need from us. We want to ease their pain, and probably ours, but in this endeavor, we fail to seize the opportunity for skill building – theirs and ours.
If you want to be an effective leader, you must learn to exercise and communicate compassion. Through compassion (and empathy), you’ll begin to understand the world from someone else’s point of view. We become more capable of expanding our perspective to include their view of the world and how this crisis is seen and processed by them.
When you reach this point, you’ll build — and keep! — credibility and become much more valuable in the problem-solving process.
Take, for example, a middle school child having difficulty with her friends. She is likely feeling lonely, insecure and afraid. She also knows the range of possibilities available for sorting through those problems. After all, this is her area of expertise and her world.
So, when she comes home at the end of the day feeling sad and lonely, maybe she just wants love and validation. Jumping in to fix her problems at this point is premature and denies her the support she needs. Building your credibility through compassion will also build your access to her world and expands your role as you usher her toward resilience. As a fixer, however, you increase the pressure on her to accept your solutions as her only avenue to support, and dialogue as well as options, become limited.
Similarly, problems with teachers, coaches and friends are not the parents to fix. The true fix for a confused child with a momentarily damaged psyche is compassion, curiosity and an absolute lack of judgment or shame. This gives resilience and perseverance space to flourish. Simultaneously, parental access and credibility are boosted. From here, a child (or client, employee, etc.) feels empowered to seek solutions from the driver’s seat and not as a passenger.
Translate this to the workforce. Leaders often confuse this role with heavy-handed problem solving through mandates and proclamations. This creates a dynamic where the fixer oftentimes misses the mark, and the one with the problem experiences a lack of control.
Real leadership provides an opportunity for people to solve their own problems. This means a shift from advice giving to information seeking. The answer isn’t a “what would the leader do?” analysis. Rather it is a “what is the person with the problem capable of?” analysis.
This means that leadership might have to sit with a problem, explore the leader’s role with respect to the problem. Then work with the employee to expand problem-solving techniques that enable him to be able to manage the problem at hand.
As a manager, owner, supervisor or another leader, you must exhibit the same compassion that a parent would offer. Regardless of a leader’s intimate knowledge of the work environment and all the players, learning and accepting the employee’s perspective is essential. With this knowledge, you begin to understand the range of possible solutions and become much more effective at guiding your employee in an effective direction.
Most problems in life and work that require real assistance have to do with relationships. Pragmatic problems tend to have finite solutions and therefore do not challenge our skillset. When relationships are involved, it gets complicated and uncomfortable. When attempting to create solutions for a relational issue, leadership has to dig deep. This requires that leaders get out of their own heads and past their own desire to ease the discomfort. This process is intimate and can be time-consuming. It also builds necessary skills that create time and space in the future so that leadership is not the first step in the problem-solving process.
When problems are relationship based, then solutions need to be enduring and adaptable. This means that rather than telling someone what to say and what to do, leadership, like parents, need to shift to a more curious stance. What have you tried? What are you worried about? What would you like to do? How is this affecting you?
An exploration of someone’s resistance to change allows you to explore options from a compassionate, knowing place. You are making the shift from suggesting the thing that you would do, to uncovering hurdles and gaining information about what your employee is capable of doing. Conflict avoidant people are not going to suddenly confront because that’s what you would do. Reactive people aren’t suddenly going to settle down because that’s what you would do or like them to do.
However, conflict-avoidant people might feel more comfortable attempting new behaviors if they know that there is support. Leadership can respect new efforts as an attempt to overcome a huge challenge, and honor the process of growth, without requiring immediate results. And reactive people might be able to take a breath and relax if they feel supported and understood in the scenario that brings about the reactivity. Or simply recognized as a reactive person that is trying harder, and therefore little efforts can be congratulated and encouraged.
This requires that leadership gains comfort with the emotional process involved in supporting the growth required to expand problem solving options for others. This can cause anxiety and discomfort as leaders move from an authoritarian role to a more intimate connection – all while maintaining boundaries.
However, if compassion, curiosity and patience are not within your leadership bandwidth, then it’s probably time to do your own work before expecting it of others.
Carrie is a therapist and licensed attorney in Connecticut with a specialization in divorce mediation and parenting plans. She also runs CT Relational Therapy, LLC and holds a Master's Degree from Fairfield University.
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