How to stop offering solutions

You deal with complex problems all day at work, and you’re wired to develop solutions: fixing bugs in your code, optimizing bottlenecks in systems, finding the perfect name to represent an idea in your interface.

Got a flat tire? Get some tools out. Fix that shit.

Started a new gardening project, maybe like growing a lemon tree, and don’t know how to fertilize it? A little googling and you’re ready to get that green thumb going (BTW, NPK: Nitrogen, Phosphorus, Potassium). Problem solved.

So when your wife, partner, or friend comes to you with a problem, it’s time to… STOP stop stop: you know it, you gotta stop that problem solving mind, right? You’ve heard it before: stop trying to solve their problems and LISTEN.

But how do you do that? You can’t just stand there dumb-faced and nodding your head. Well, you probably can, but that’s not gonna win you any brownie points, because then you seem like you don’t care. I’ve been there.

The answer, my fellow nerds and over-thinkers, is: Mirroring.

Here’s what you do:

  1. Identify what their feeling is (sadness, anger, frustration, etc.)
  2. Express to them that you know how they’re feeling with what you just identified
  3. Stop there! No solutions!

When your wife comes home and tells you how they had a hard time at work cause Karen in the office is driving her up the wall because she won’t stop interrupting her in meetings, you can respond with:

Wow, that really sucks. It must be so frustrating having Karen interrupt you every time you’re trying to say something important and get things done.

Or maybe:

I can see how it must make you so angry when Karen just speaks right over you when you’re trying to make your point.

See? No solution, and you’re engaged and showing compassion and connecting with them.

You’re essentially saying, “Hey, you’re not alone, I’m here with you, and I can feel how you’re feeling too.” And that in itself is help. Really, it helps. Seems trite, seems simple, but it makes a big impact.

This is sometimes called “Active Listening,” and it can take some practice to get used to if your habit is to provide solutions, especially if solution-building is what you do all day. Try it out, and keep practicing it. The more you do it, the more you’ll find yourself connecting better with the people around you.

We all could use a little more compassion in our lives, and by giving some to others (the cost is nothing!), especially to those we care about, we get the joy of being able to help them.