Have you ever had a coworker approach you with an issue they are dealing with? Sometimes, issues come up through minor complaints or occasional venting. Other times, issues are front and center as the main topic of a conversation. When this happens, how can you help your coworker without taking ownership of their issue?
You can use the steps below to effectively engage in the conversation without getting caught in the middle of someone else’s issue. These steps are designed to help the person with the issue:
- Feel heard and supported
- Gain more clarity on their issue
- Take responsibility for their future
Jen is a senior developer who is ramping down on a nine-month project and has been wanting to gain more experience with web development. She learns that the scheduling team is considering an option to put her on another mobile project so she can provide technical mentorship to a few junior team members.
You have worked in the same office as Jen for a few years and have worked directly with her on several projects. You respect each other and occasionally get together to celebrate successes or seek advice.
Jen asks you to lunch, and during your lunch conversation, she begins to vent about being assigned to another mobile project. She voices frustration about her fear of getting stuck on mobile projects forever and says she is not feeling heard about her desire to get more web development experience.
1. Confirm intentions
The first step is to ask the person if they are telling you about the situation because they want to vent, or if they want to really discuss the issue. If they want to discuss the issue, make it clear that you can’t solve the issue for them but you can listen, share experiences, and possibly help identify next steps.
In our scenario, you confirm with Jen that she wants to discuss the issue and would appreciate help considering her next steps.
2. Listen and seek first to understand
This practice should apply throughout all steps. Listen closely for facts and feelings. Treat feelings as importantly as facts. Don’t try to interpret or understand someone else’s issue through your own prior experiences or perspective. Seek to truly understand how someone is experiencing their issue by listening to their perspective.
Get into a neutral mindset, and get ready to listen.
3. Ask what has already been done
Question the person about any steps they’ve already taken to address the issue. This gives you an opportunity to learn how they’ve tried to solve the problem before talking about it with you.
In our scenario, you learn that, two months ago, Jen told someone on the scheduling team that she was looking forward to her current mobile project ramping down and that she’d like to be on a web project if possible.
You also learn that Jen has been spending some professional development time outside of work on web development.
4. Ask clarifying questions
Asking questions at this point can help get at the heart of the matter. Remember to listen and seek to understand. Refrain from asking leading questions that implicitly offer advice.
In our example, you might ask Jen the following questions:
- Why is getting on a web project important to you?
- Looking out three years from now, will you value mentorship experience or web development experience more?
- How did you learn that you might be getting on another mobile project? How certain are you about the assignment?
- What might happen if you don’t do anything? Do you think you want to live with the situation or seek to change it?
After discussing with Jen, you learn that:
- The web project experience is important to her because she feels she needs to have web development experience to be respected as a well-rounded technical mentor.
- In three years, Jen wants to be valued as both a strong mentor and a web developer.
- She heard about this possible mobile project from a co-worker, not a member of the scheduling team. The certainty is unknown. Jen remarks that it might be a good idea to talk directly with the scheduling team, but she has reservations about that leading to success as she has already made her interest in a web assignment known.
- She wants to change the situation if possible.
You then ask Jen if she can think of alternatives that give her both web development and technical mentorship experiences. You ask Jen what an ideal outcome would look like.
She remarks that it could be interesting to help use her mobile expertise to get the potential mobile project started for a few months, if she would then be able to move to a web project. She expresses that she could also continue to contribute some limited mentoring hours on the mobile project after transitioning to the web project.
5. Share from experience
At this point in the process, you now have a much better understanding of the person’s feelings, motivations, and the issue they are facing. By sharing similar experiences of your own, you can provide examples of real scenarios and real outcomes that might trigger ideas for the other person.
Sharing experiences is better than giving advice because your experiences are facts. When you give advice in the form of telling someone else what to do, you risk:
- Giving bad advice because you might still not fully understand the other person’s issue.
- Sounding a little condescending because it seems like you easily have the answers.
- Starting to take ownership away from the other person about owning the path to resolve the issue.
Your experiences may be ripe with ideas, but make sure you aren’t promoting your ideas as the exact solution to someone else’s problem.
Returning to our example, you share with Jen that you were once on a long-running project with no ramp-down in sight. You had been on the project for 12 months and needed a change. You also had mentioned to someone on the scheduling team that a change would be nice at some point. You heard a few new projects were possibly starting in a month or so, but there was no sign of being able to rotate off your current project.
You share that you decided to talk with a scheduling team member to gain a better understanding of when you would be changing projects. You learned that potential projects in the pipeline and team scheduling present a moving picture, and many options are considered as different opportunities in the sales pipeline progress towards commitments. You learned not to take any one option too seriously until opportunities were very mature in the sales phase and commitments were nearing.
You tell Jen that your conversation allowed you to see and collaboratively discuss several options for project rotation in the coming three to four months. The rotation wasn’t immediate, but you had the confidence that the rotation was now a priority for the scheduling team, and you had a timeline to consider. The rotation did happen in about three months.
6. What’s the next step?
Sharing your experiences may have triggered ideas and further discussion. At this point, you can help someone start making progress. Ask what step they can take in the coming days to move things forward. Don’t let responsibility for the next step shift to you (although you may want to offer continued guidance and support). Issue resolution is best owned by the the person with the issue.
Back to our example, you can now ask Jen if she has ideas for what her next step could be.
Jen tells you she was reluctant to approach the scheduling team with questions and requests about upcoming assignments, but she believes that is the best next step.
She says it will help to understand how probable this potential upcoming mobile assignment really is and why the scheduling team thought she’d be valuable on it. Jen identifies that this might be an opportunity to learn more about scheduling decisions, identify options for successfully starting the mobile project, and join a web project in the coming months.
You ask Jen if she will commit to taking her next step within five days. She agrees and tells you she will let you know how the conversation goes.
You have successfully helped Jen transform her worry into action. You haven’t told Jen what to do, and you haven’t taken on the burden of solving her issue for her. This approach hopefully helped Jen feel she had the answers to her issue and has the capacity to change her future.
- Vistage’s problem solving approach
- Stephen Covey’s Book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People
- Harvard Business Review’s classic article, “Management Time: Who’s Got the Monkey?”