Thursday, 3 September 2015

On listening and providing the right answers...

All my life, I've been primarily involved in helping people by listening to them and finding the right answers and solutions.

In the context of working in libraries, this is obvious - people come to the consult me with their information needs. I listen to them, asking questions to clarify their needs, and then proceed to identify a number of resources to meet their needs.

Similarly, in development work, I've participated in capacity building of organisations, by asking questions to ascertain what it is that they want to achieve, listening to their answers, identifying skills and knowledge that they should develop to meet these needs, and then share my own relevant skills and knowledge, guiding them through training and establishing new procedures, infrastructure and knowledge products.

In both of these examples, my role is set up as an expert, who clients consult to find solutions. More often than not, their expectation is that I will deliver the solution to them. And whilst it is far more sustainable for me to teach them to do it themselves, sometimes the timeframe is too short, sometimes they just aren't willing to learn, and of course, there are many other intervening factors, least of all being that deep down, I just want to help people and use my specialist skills and knowledge to make a difference, one way or another.

But after attending a training workshop today, I'm starting to question whether this is a good thing.

The workshop was on developing my listening skills. There was a lot of theory and psychology involved, mostly related to bonding patterns, and then there were videos like this one:


When I watched this video, I was totally with the guy - wanting to help the girl by offering a solution, since she was talking to him about her problem. However, as the training continued, it became clear that one key point about being a good listener is that we should not be taking on other people's problems and trying to fix them, but rather exercise empathy, and provide opportunities for the our clients to reflect on what it is that they are saying, and find their own solutions.

Furthermore, it's misleading to believe that there is a "right answer" to every problem, and it's unreasonable for somebody to expect me to deliver that answer for them. To quote the trainer, "There are no right answers - there are just choices that people make." When people thrust their problems onto us, we need to deflect them back onto the complainant, not asking "why" (thus forcing them justify their view) but "what" and "how" (i.e. describing the situation), empathising with them, and allowing them to reflect and make their own decisions.

In the context of being a librarian, I should listen to the client, and advise them on their options in order for them to make their own informed choice. Similarly, in development, I should help clients develop their skills and knowledge, but ultimately they need to use these new tools to make their own choices in implementing them.

I'm still not sure that I agree 100% with this attitude. Asking other people to tackle the hard problems for us and help find the "right answer" is something that's so embedded in our lives, whether it's done by our teachers, professionals, government, work colleagues, partners, etc that it's hard to remove those expectations from our everyday consultations and conversations. We defer to the judgement of experts and mentors because we believe them to have a better perspective, where ours might be lacking. And ultimately, when forcing people to make their own decisions, one of those decisions is for them to quit or withdraw, saying, "It's too hard. I can't do it" or "I don't have time". That's a lose-lose situation.

Then again, maybe I just need to get over myself, stop trying to help people, and support them in helping themselves.