5 Mar 2009

WAIT! Don’t close that door.

Posted by paulandrew


So there I am, the Supportive Listener, doing the listening thing. And it’s working. My dear friend is exploring her challenge, her mind is working, the ideas are flowing. And then it happens. She says to me, very earnestly, “So Paul, what should I do?”

Wow, this is tempting. I love to help people, and I have been known to blurt out advice. But this time is different—I’m doing a good job of just listening, of not jumping in. Ah, finally I’m being asked for advice. Great! So I’m ready to roll. They asked me for it, right?

WAIT! Although in one way it’s true: words did come out of my friend’s mouth that sounded an awful lot like a direct request for advice. But let’s be a little smarter about this. “What  should I do?”often has a much more important meaning than “give me advice”—it can be a doorway to great thinking.

That’s right, when the speaker says “What should I do?” they are standing right on the doorway of their own insight. The great ideas are just about to flow out of them. It’s about to happen.

But here’s the trick: if I answer that question, that apparent request for advice, I am *slamming* that door of insight shut. The minute I give advice, my friend goes into “receiving” mode, and their mind shifts gears. The momentum shifts from “her working towards the solution” to “me solving it.” All of those great ideas she was about to uncover are quietly tucked away. Now she’s just following along, as I generate the ideas, I lead the way.

What I propose to you is this: when the speaker is in charge, the results are more fruitful and more empowering. It’s the “best case scenario” when someone solves their own problem. So why not give that process a chance?

Instead of answering your friend’s oh so tempting “What should I do?” question, do this: bounce it back to them. It takes practice to develop your own style; my favorite way is a very simple “I dunno, what’s your take?”

A shocking (shocking!) number of times, that’s all it takes for the speaker to be off and running, opening that door of insight and discovering a surprising number of insights. After this happens, I always think “WOW am I glad I didn’t answer that.”

Now sometimes my “quick bounce back” line of “what’s your take?” doesn’t work. I get “I don’t know, that’s why I asked you.” And for this I have a backup approach that often does the trick: “Well, what are your options?” And they are off and running again.

You can imagine that this back and forth could go on for quite some time: my friend thinking through their challenge, discovering insights, coming up with solutions and then handing leadership of the exploration back to me. And I just keep giving it back to them, in as neutral a way as I can. And they keep working. It’s really neat.

The key idea is this: your friend, your partner, your child, this person who you’re listening for has huge potential within them to find great insight and solutions to their own problems. Rather than taking charge and giving advice, hold open that door of insight for them. Bounce that “What should I do?” question back to them. And when they amaze you with their solutions, smile—you helped make that happen.

— Paul.

 ©2008-2009 Supportive Listening

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5 Responses to “WAIT! Don’t close that door.”

  1. Paul:
    I really like your idea of shutting or opening a door of insight for another person.

    In turning the question around encouraging the person to examine their own thinking I have found that often what the person is really asking for help in clarifying their own question.

    Their lack of a clear direction is not found in finding a good solution for themselves because they really have not clarified the issue sufficiently in order for a solution to fit. I have found that when the question is clear then the solution is obvious.

    Just my 2 cents.
    Bob Brennan



  2. Thank you, Paul –
    The timing of your newsletter couldn’t have been better. I am going to print this out and make myself a cue card. It is so clear and makes such sense. As a master “problemsolver,” I “close the door” way too often. I am going to practice:
    I dunno, what’s your take and well, what are your options as much as I need to, until they become my new way of listening.



  3. I mostly agree on what you said, but it depends on the level of the problem the person is having. I think it’s a bit harsh to let them think of options when they are totally lost. I would give them options (not advice) and let them choose what’s best for them. You are right, they are the ones who know what’s best for them.



  4. Yes, and isn’t it fascinating that by simply talking to someone who shows “unconditional positive regard” (to use Rogers’ term), and yet adds nothing material, the question becomes more clear. There is magic in connection–and this is a way to unlock it.



  5. Yoko, thanks for your comment. Yes it’s an interesting dilemma one faces with a friend who is really struggling. They’re in pain, I feel that to some degree, and I want to help. What I’m discovering is that people are more “robust” than they may appear. And by managing my own intensity, and giving them the space to think, I’m consistently surprised by what people come up with. The idea is that if there’s potential there let’s see if it can come out.

    Now having said that, if a friend is in a true emergency, where they are in harm’s way, then it’s another matter. As Eran likes to say, if you see smoke coming from the kitchen, you don’t say “What are your options?” The trick is one of telling the difference between smoke and steam, if you will.



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