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The most important question you should ask when someone has a problem.

When Michael and I first started dating, I was over at his house for dinner. As I was helping prepare the meal, he and his oldest son Noah got into an argument. As I sat back, listened and watched the whole thing unfold, I realized a very important lesson about relationships and communication.

The problem

Noah wanted to tell his father about a problem he was having. Michael, being the amazing Dad that he is, wanted to help Noah fix his problem. All of this might sound perfectly acceptable and might leave one questioning how this would lead to an argument. The problem was that Noah didn’t want his dad to fix his problem. What Noah was looking for was someone to simply listen to him vent. Later that night, Michael and I were talking about how he and Noah had started arguing more recently and I shared with him what I had observed during their argument. 

Would you like me to listen, coach or advise?

“Would you like me to listen, coach or advise?”, is the question I asked him. He looked at me like I just spoke to him in Greek. Michael doesn’t know Greek. Actually, neither do I, but I then explained to him what I meant. Oftentimes, people in our lives will share their problems with us. The only thing we can control in that situation is how we as individuals respond, but if you don’t know what type of response the other person is looking for, how do you know what the appropriate response is? Maybe someone, like Noah, just wants to vent and wants you to listen to what they have to say. They just want you to acknowledge that you hear them and see how much the problem is frustrating them. Maybe the individual would like you to coach them, by actively listening and asking questions to help them identify the best solution for themselves. Or maybe this person really wants your advice and to hear exactly what you would do if you were in their shoes. Instead of assuming what the individual wants or needs, just ask them.

Michael and I discussed the argument again with Noah, and Noah confirmed he really just wanted his dad to listen to him, not to fix his problem for him. If Michael had known that, he could have practiced supporting Noah’s frustration without providing unwanted advice.

Establishing professional boundaries for problem solving

After that epiphany, I started using this simple question with my employees and it is amazing how effective it is for solving employee issues. I will admit that it takes lots of practice. However, implementing it in the workplace has been the easiest because most people request to have a meeting to talk to me about a particular issue. Their request for a meeting gives me the opportunity to ask them what they want to discuss and respond with some times when I can be available. Once they identify the issue they would like to discuss, I can then ask them if they want me to listen, coach or advise on the situation. They can then determine for themselves what type of support they are looking for. This empowers them to discover solutions to their own issues and builds confidence that they can overcome obstacles.

Setting personal boundaries

Where I have struggled the most with this is remembering to ask this same question in my personal relationships. I am getting better at identifying questions that can help trigger this as my response, such as:

“Hey, do you have a second?”, “Can I talk to you about something?” or any question that in its own way tells me this person has an issue to discuss with me. But it is not always easy when the issue pops up in the middle of a conversation or is an issue that I am emotionally invested in.

Michael reminded me that I should still be asking this question even when I am emotionally involved in the other person’s problem. For example, my brother who is a drug addict has been having issues. My dad who is battling cancer and undergoing chemotherapy feels compelled to always fix my brother’s problems even though the stress of it is negatively impacting his health. My dad reached out to me to ask for my assistance in one particular matter with my brother, and I immediately sprang to the rescue even though I knew it was not my problem or my dad’s to solve. If I would have asked the question, “would you like me to listen, coach or advise?” I could have established my personal boundaries at the very beginning of the conversation. Nothing in that question says “would you like me to fix your problem for you”. For me, my personal boundaries are that I can listen to your problem and I can coach or advise you on how to fix your problem, but I can not fix the problem for you. In this case, my personal boundaries were violated when I was asked to fix my brother’s problem for him.

In Leah Campbell’s article Why Personal Boundaries are Important and How to Set Them, she states that boundaries are more likely to be violated if we don’t communicate them, and that’s when problems may occur. That is exactly what happened. My dad struggles to set boundaries for himself when it comes to trying to solve other people’s problems for them. Since I never communicated my own boundaries, it should not have surprised me that he would have asked for my help in fixing my brother’s problems. It has always been my nature to want to fix something that is broken. Problems are all solvable, but it took me years to fully appreciate that they are not all solvable by me. Jumping in to fix my brother’s problems not only took most of my day, it completely stressed me out and made it hard to focus on what I could control and the problems I could solve. Additionally, it caused me even more stress as I discovered how much it is impacting my dad and his health to try to solve something that is not his problem to solve and therefore is not solvable by him.

Three parting tips for establishing boundaries for successful relationships

In both personal and professional relationships, it is important for each person to clearly identify their boundaries, respect the boundaries of the other person, and in difficult discussions have a clear understanding of what type of support the other person is looking for from you. In relationships where I have accomplished these three things, I have found the relationships to be more successful and fulfilling as both sides have their needs met. I have my boundaries protected and I can limit conflict by protecting the emotions of myself and the other person. So, would you like me to listen, coach or advise?

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