Silence, “I don’t know” and problems & solutions


Photo by said&done

This week we had workshop on Adaptive Leadership as part of our integrative experience in the AGSM MBA. Part of the workshop entailed peer consultation regarding dilemmas the students are facing. We formed groups of five people and in the group we had a very specific process that we had to follow:

First, the person presenting the dilemma had five minutes to present without anybody interfering. Second, the group had ten minutes to ask open-ended questions. Third, for 15 minutes, the group had to discuss the problem. At this point, two rules were put in place. The first is that the presenter should be absolutely silent. The second is that the discussion of the dilemma should not be about solutions, but only an attempt to understand the situation and what is the dilemma made of. The forth stage was a ten minute discussion regarding possible courses of action. Finally, the presenter had five minutes to recap what he found useful.

As someone who likes to focus on the process and its importance, this exercise defiantly appealed to me. I think some bigger insights can be gained from it:

The importance of silence – I think that this is a great reminder to the importance of silence. When you sit silently while other are discussing you become attuned and aware of other things that you usually miss. Your mind is focused on listening and not on the next sentence you will try to push into the discussion. Silence and listening are important tools for communication that are usually underused. I just finished reading the book: “The McKinsey Mind” where one of the tips the writers prescribe is: “we have one mouth and two ears”. This is especially important in feedback sessions and in today’s managerial setting where the manager usually is not the content expert. Listen as twice as much as you talk. This relates to a concept I really believe in: “MBWA – management by walking around”. Go around the office, firm, plant, company. Be silent and listen. What do people say? What do they do? What do the customers say? I grantee, you will learn plenty.

Don’t accept “I don’t know” as an answer – in the same book the authors talked about not accepting “I don’t know” as an answer. They claim that if you go and interview somebody, let’s say, about the causes of a certain problem, many times he will answer: “I don’t know”. But people do know. Maybe they don’t have the entire answer, but they always have opinions, knowledge and theories. And these sometimes prove more valuable than they think. I believe that the silence is important here is as well. Try this next time you interview someone or give feedback to someone. Ask a question. Listen to the answer. Then wait. Don’t go to the next question. In high percentage of the cases, that person will, after a short uncomfortable silence, continue talking. People don’t like being silent. You would be surprised how much they will tell you just to avoid being silent.

Problems and solutions – people in the business world tend to be practical. They want to see and reach the bottom line. They ask: “So what?” all the time. But in our race to be active and create an impact we sometime bark up the wrong tree. We miss focusing on the real problem and create solutions which don’t really solve the problem. We keep trying to deal with fires and don’t ask ourselves how they were caused and why. I mentioned here in this blog that I believe we should be more focused on preventing problems then on solving them. Understanding the real problems is an important part of that. In order to do that, it could be beneficial to limit the discussion to the problem without talking about solutions. It allows us to talk about concepts. To take the balcony view. To think about the underlining rationale. Then, the discussion of the solutions will be much more effective.



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