Solutions or Compassion: When to Offer Advice…and Not

By: Josh

 “Leadership is solving problems. The day soldiers stop bringing you their problems is the day you have stopped leading them. They have either lost confidence that you can help or concluded you do not care. Either case is a failure of leadership.”

Looking back at his 35 years of service in the Army, Colin Powell shares this timeless perspective in his book, My American Journey. It remains an important reminder for all leaders, at all levels, in all industries. When our people are willing to include us in their professional challenges and personal lives, it is a signal of earned trust, respect, and confirmation they know that we care. When our people bring us their problems, it serves as a leadership opportunity.

But what do we do with that opportunity? Do we offer advice and help them efficiently get to a solution? Or should we simply listen to offer support and compassion? What is the right answer? Is there a right answer?

As leaders, we easily default to action. We aim to identify the problem, generate a solution, and solve the problem as quickly and efficiently as possible. We desire to add value, to help, and to fix.

However, not every problem needs our advice. Maybe not everyone is looking for a solution. Maybe we can best serve others by listening when they bring us their problems.

Hot Take: Compassion > Solutions

In their book, Compassionate Leadership, authors Rasmus Hougaard and Jacqueline Carter state that, “…often people don’t need your solutions. They just need your ear and your caring presence. Many problems don’t need a solution, but rather to just be heard and seen. Not acting on others’ problems can oftentimes be the most powerful way of helping.”

When I came across these lines reading the book, it felt like a swift punch to the gut. How often do I merely default to advice? And how often have I missed the mark in adding value when what I really should have done was listen?

Author Bob Goff compounds the argument in his inspiring book, Love Does, when he said, “Most people need love and acceptance a lot more than they need advice.”

Maybe we are too quick or too easy to offer advice as leaders…

The Slippery Slope of Solutions

Yes, leaders add value, solve problems, fix things, and make things better. But when it comes to helping people solve their problems, our well intentions can easily fall into a few different pitfalls. We may not be helping as much as we think.

Often, our advice and offerings of solutions can:

  • Shift the focus onto us: “Well, let me tell you the time I…” and other such stories, though aimed at providing some helpful perspective to someone else, usually just turns the conversation around to become about us now. It’s selfish and arrogant.
  • Be bad advice: Most often, we listen to the problem for a minute or two and think we know what is going on and have the answer. However, our rush to give advice in fact misses the mark because we don’t fully understand the situation, its details, or the heart of the issue.
  • Lose the audience: We have to earn the right to speak truth into others’ lives. We can’t do that if we are unwilling to listen and care. Rushing into solutions can lead to the other person tuning us out because they do not sense that we see, hear, care about, and value them. Then, they just sit there, smiling and nodding, to be polite as we ramble on, regretting that they even came to us to talk in the first place.
  • Fall victim to the hero effect: As leaders, we may think we have the best or right answer, and that we can save everyone from their problems. This becomes hubris and self-centeredness at its worst.

When Do We Offer Advice Then?

So, when do we? Or don’t we? How do I know what to do when people bring me their problems?

Our 3x5 Leadership Team actually shared Hougaard and Carter’s earlier quote from their book, Compassionate Leadership, in a recent #WhiteboardWednesday quote. We were surprised by the volume of responses received from readers that asked the question: How can we tell when we should offer a solution or just listen with compassion?

Great question. It’s one I’ve asked myself for years. And one that I ask myself every time I’m confronted with a problem-centric conversation. Personally, I simplify the decision to two conditions.

Condition 1 – They ask for advice. I usually find that when a person brings a problem to me, they’ve already determined what they want out of the conversation – help or just for someone to listen. If they ask, “What do you think?” or “What should I do?” then they are clearly looking for solutions and help. However, if they don’t, I safely assume they are searching for a little compassion.

On a deeper level of this condition, leaders should also consider if providing advice or solutions is in the best interest of the other person developmentally. Some people may come to us as a way to press the “easy button,” knowing we may tell them what to do, rather than owning the problem and figuring it out themselves. When faced with others asking for our help, pause to also think what is in their best interests for continued development. It might not be our advice but instead, coaching them to generate their own solution.

Condition 2 – Ask what would be most helpful. The person may be too nervous or shy to ask for advice, or they may be a bit too overwhelmed by the current situation to know what exactly they are looking for in the moment. So, if they are not asking for advice and you feel the conversation is dancing around getting to a solution, find an appropriate opportunity to pause the conversation and ask what would be most helpful to them right now. It doesn’t have to be a big emotional gesture, though. Simple questions like these may be all you need:

  • “Before we move forward, I want to ensure I’m offering the best help possible in this conversation. Would working with you to find a solution or listening to support be most helpful right now?”
  • “I appreciate you sharing this with me. What would be most helpful to you right now, a mouth or an ear?”
  • “I’m going to continue listening and probably ask a few more questions to ensure I’m understanding correctly, but quickly, I just want to say that I don’t assume I have the best solution or that you’re even looking for one from me. So please let me know if you’d like to dive into talking about a possible solution later in this conversation. Otherwise, I am more than happy to continue listening because I care about you, and this definitely sounds important.”

Essential to these two conditions, and to this whole argument really, is that we as leaders should always default to listening over giving advice first. We will never regret listening more and talking less. We won’t look back and think that we gave our advice too late. But we can rush in and give senseless advice. We can turn the conversation around to make it about us, even if unintended. We can lose trust.

So, when our people bring us their problems, first, enjoy the fact that they trust us enough to bring it to us, and that they know we care.

Second, don’t view these moments as distractions or nuisances. These are opportunities – for development, for building trust, and for cultivating relationships.

Finally, pause before injecting into the conversation. Think through the conditions. Is this the right time and right way to add value?

And if in doubt, simply listen just a little bit longer.

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