More than meets the eye – feedback, problem solving and offering help

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In Helping: How to Offer, Give, and Receive Help, (which is turning out to be a gem of a book) Edgar Schein has identified and articulated an issue that I have seen in practice many times.

When I used to teach how to give feedback in the Israeli Air Force we used to do simulations where the participants of the workshop got some background details about a relationship and a situation and were asked to give feedback to another participant who was playing the appropriate role. Almost every time, you see the same thing happening. People jump to conclusions. They read the background they got, they decide what the problem is and after tending to the pleasantries of some of the process we taught them, start lecturing to the other side about the solution. Almost nobody takes the time to ask for the other side’s point of view or makes sure he understand what the problem really is.

Now, off course, the simulation is usually built so that the problem is more than meets the eye. Really understanding it usually requires probing and overcoming the resistance of the other side. It also usually demands a joint approach for creating solutions. But people ignore that. They are so trapped in their own view of the situation, in their own desire to help or just to get through the awkward situation that they just ran through it. What surprises me the most is to see the same participant that just played the role of some receiving feedback goes ahead and does the exact same mistake. It is so ingrained into our human nature that it is hard to overcome.

This is what Schein says:

The trap for the helper is to move too rapidly to solutions, to provide advice or guidance on the hypothetical problem and, thereby, cut off the opportunity to learn what the real problem might be. Working the hypothetical problem does little to equilibrate the relationship.

A while back I mentioned that in the book Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss what Matters Most the authors claim that each difficult conversation or conflict people have is actually made up of three conversations. The “What happened?” conversation; the feelings conversation; and the identity conversation. Generally, conversations are more than what they seem to be. The “what happened” is the easy part. But it is usually not the real problem. Schein gives a great example for that:

A manager says to a management consultant, “I would like you to help me with some team building for my group” when the problem is that the manager has lost faith in one of her subordinates but does not know how to deal with it.

Problems are not always what they appear to be. But when a problem arises, we do everything we can to make it go away. Instead, we need to study it. To probe into it. To understand it. Choosing the quick fix is rarely a good solution in the long-term.

How do you approach somebody else’s problem?

Elad

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