In my previous post I talked about how I choose to work through problems not around them. It summarizes my overall mindset towards life and helps me deal with my procrastinatory tendencies. This belief keeps me focused and prevents me from comfortably leaning on my default behavior of putting things aside and not dealing with them. However, if confused with addressing the wrong problems, it can be truly exhausting. This is where it’s important to distinguish the desire to fully engage with something and see it to completion and randomly collecting problems that are not yours.
I love the 1974 HBR classic “Management Time: Who’s Got The Monkey“, which tells the story of an overstretched manager who unwittingly takes on all problems from his team. It’s about time management theory, but the important message is that one should distinguish problems appropriate for them to solve versus problem that are others’ to solve. In short, you can’t just say yes to all problems even if your ethos is “work through problems not around them”, you have to be discerning.
So how do you discern? You relate the problem to what your role, your objective or your values. You ask, does this problem matter to me? Learning to answer the question is accomplished through trial and error.
In a professional work context for example, many new managers who are new to having direct reports often fail at supporting their staff because they solve their staff problems rather than helping and guiding them on seeking their own resolution. It’s so tempting to solve problems you’ve solved before; as a new manager, you are responsible for coaching and mentoring others who are going through what you’ve gone through before; solving their problems doesn’t help them grow and is not the expected contribution of your role. (Tip: It is also disempowering). The traditional Chinese proverb expresses that directly: “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime”.
In inter-personal relationships, it can be the difference between being a friend or not. Helping others who have a problem to solve by supporting THEIR ability to work through things and/or stop avoiding something is what’s key. It’s not solving it for them, or disengaging when the need exists. It’s hard to define how much to be involved, but remember the first rule of helping: help must be wanted. Most of the time people are struggling with a problem or avoiding it because they haven’t really articulated the problem. This is a situation where you can help by framing or reframing the problem with them. And leaving them to solve it.
How about intimate relationships? I know very well that solving my wife’s problems for her is neither what she needs nor what I am best at, but I can’t help myself. I want her to be wildly happy and content all the time; when she comes to me frustrated with a problem I want to immediately address it, but sometimes all she needs is someone who is willing to listen. Over the years we learned that this happens between us so now when we express a frustration or problem and catch the other person trying to find a solution for it, we explicitly say “I don’t need you to solve it for me, I just need you to listen”. Simple, but what a win to have figured this out! And when she or I want help solving a problem, we ask for help: We state the problem as we see it and ask “What do you think I should do?”. It’s then up to the other person to help clarify the problem/problems and determine if it is theirs to solve too or if it’s back to the person. Advice and suggestions are welcome then, but taking it over from the other person is rarely the right answer.
I mentioned three kinds of situations where things may go awry when trying to work through a problem, most of these are in relationship to other people and their own problems. It is really on our own problems that is most difficult to be discerning on what to address and what not to. I’ll address that in my next post.