#404  from Innovative Leader Volume 8, Number 5          May 1999

Supporting Solution-Finding
by Sharon Drew Morgen

Ms. Morgen, president of Morgen Facilitations, Inc. in Taos, New Mexico
(sdmorgen@rt66.com; www.newsalesparadigm.com; phone 505-776-2509), is author
of Selling With Integrity (Berrett-Koehler, San Francisco, 1997).

Much of our daily business communication revolves around seeking and sharing information. The ultimate goal is to complete our work in the most effective manner possible. That means, ultimately, finding systems to discover and align solutions meeting the needs of our colleagues, staff, and clients.

What we generally do, as communicators, is offer those requiring information from us, either: 1) What we believe is necessary for others to get their needs met, or 2) What we want others to have.

In both instances, we decide what information to pass on,  overlooking the possibility that between us we will have more information available than either of us will ever have alone.

Even the questions we ask are meant to uncover a problem that our product, our knowledge, our process can solve. To use the metaphor of sales--as we are all selling our ideas, thoughts, and opinions--we are "pitching" our product in one form or another, regardless of whether or not the other person is seeking to buy. We become sellers with no buyers, solutions in search of problems. And without a buyer, there’s no sale.

How People Decide

In reality, people make decisions when they come up with their own solutions. How often have you known you had the right process, or the right product, or the right idea, only to have it ignored for something that turned out to be less effective? How did that happen?  It wasn’t because your process or product or idea was faulty.  It was because the person didn’t know how to use it, or because your ideas didn't fit in with their system.

People use their own beliefs, principles, values and systems with which to make decisions, and the length of time it takes people to come up with their own answers is the length of time it takes them to decide. If we truly want to serve one another, why not help them come up with their own solutions? Maybe we ought to consider giving up the need to have the “right” answer.

Trust

In order to communicate so that people discover their own solutions, we would have to trust that they will arrive at the best solution. Of course, we could be an integral part of this process by asking questions that support solution-finding, thereby giving up our need to be right and to search instead for the best answer.  The answer might be different than anyone could have foreseen. 

Imagine if our objective in each communication was to support another in discovering the best solution. Imagine if we believed it were our responsibility to support each person in uncovering all the available possibilities, trusting the answer she or he came up with was indeed the best one, and possibly not attached to our product or idea.

Let’s look at the mindset that would create that level of responsibility.

Beliefs

First of all, we have to believe that each person has their own best answers, and that our job is to provide questions. Not manipulative questions leading to our product or idea being the answer, but questions that support others’ abilities to navigate their own decision making. 

Here are examples of such questions:

              Where are you now, where are you going, and what’s stopping you from getting there? What would need to happen to get you where you want to be?

              What do you have in place that you could use to solve this problem? What is still missing? How do you plan to go forward to find solutions?

You can see that these questions:  

              Aren’t manipulative

              Support the other person in uncovering criteria for solving their own problem

              Trust the other person to have his or her own answers

              Take the responsibility to begin to guide the other through the decision-making or solution-finding process.

This promotes individual and team responsibility and respect. In meetings, this assumes an answer will come from the whole rather than from one or two individuals.

Next, we have to believe that people only change when they recognize something is missing that they can’t take care of themselves. We only take aboard or learn something new if what we do doesn’t work.  People would rather fix what they have. As communicators, our role is to help people navigate their choices to see what fits. If they can explore each possible solution thoroughly--something people can’t always do without help because they are so close to the situation--they will see whether or not they have an internal fix already, or need to find an external solution because they really need to correct what is missing.

Here’s an example. Years ago a major hardware company had a problem: they were basically giving away an updated computer as a beta to mom and pop shops that already had purchased the older model. No one wanted it. They called me to find out what was happening. I called several places and got the same responses.

SDM: Hi, my name is Sharon Drew Morgen, with AXC company. How is your current computer working?

P: Oh, it’s OK.

SDM: What is stopping you from getting a computer that is more than OK?

P: Dad.

SDM: DAD? What does that mean?

P: We’re a mom and pop shop. Dad’s the pop. He handles all the computer systems. We wouldn’t change anything until he retires.

The salesperson that called had been pushing computers. For years, companies have been selling computers, or trying to solve problems their own way, or using their own brand of communication patterns, when in fact decisions are made systemically. “Dad” is the reason a company makes a purchase; not the qualities of a new computer.

The next question I asked the mom and pop shop aligned their thinking so they could look at all their systemic options:

SDM: Are there any conditions under which you would consider looking at a new computer at this time?

Half of the Mom and Pop shops I spoke with said no. Great. They thought about their needs and were clear that the Dad issue would not be addressed. No new computer.

The other half said: "Oh. Can you  fax Dad some info?" or "Can Dad go to a site where their information is installed so he can see if it would work for him?"

The question I asked:

              Assumed they had their own answer by opening the possibilities for additional information within their existing system;

              Supported them in finding their best internal solution through a question which led them to a full brain search for possible answers;

              Gave them a way to consider making decisions to solve a long-standing problem, or supported them in keeping the status quo.

Notice that the answer was in their experience; but they didn’t know how or where to access the information until I asked them a question that had them look at all of their decision points.  I could have spent months attempting to sell them the computer I thought they needed, but they didn't know how to factor Dad into the decision.

Notice, too, that I had to give up my need to sell them a computer, and support them in discovering their best solution, separate from my need to sell a product. Ultimately, it became win-win:  my sales increased, and everyone discovered their best solutions, whether it included a new computer or not.

While this is a very simplistic example, how many of us have our own answers and don’t know how to search for them?  How many colleagues do we know who will actually assist us in the discovery process of finding these answers?

Imagine if each of us took the responsibility to ask the questions that enable others to find their own answers. It changes staffing problems, negotiation tactics, and arguments of all sorts. It also supports people in raising their self-esteem when they discover they hold their own answers.  This attitude strengthens relationships as well, as it continually opens collaborations through trust that between us we will come up with the best answer.

The hardest part is to detach enough, trust enough, and be willing to let go of our need to be “right” and understand that, as leaders, our real job is to serve.

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