It may seem counter-intuitive, but sometimes you can solve problems just by listening. We all tend to look for solutions when people come to us with problems. We want to help fix things. We make suggestions for things they can do, or offer to do things for them. Or even tell people what they shouldn’t be doing! In a surprising number of cases, though, it’s completely unnecessary.
Sometimes, people need to vent.
They know what to do – in many cases they’re already doing it – but it’s hard and frustrating and taking too long and they just need to talk!
I remember a conversation I had with the program manager of a search and rescue organization. I call it a conversation, though I don’t think I uttered more than a couple of dozen words throughout the course of the half-hour call.
She talked about the challenge getting volunteers to complete the full training, and the difficulty keeping volunteers after they went through the training, and how even the trained volunteers wouldn’t follow procedures, and, and, and, and.
At the end of the call, she thanked me for my help (???) and hung up. Did I mention that I hardly said a word? I didn’t make any suggestions, or offer any advice. I just listened. By laying all the issues out in front of a neutral person, she was able to see them more clearly and objectively herself, and she came up with two or three possible solutions. By being willing to just listen, I gave her the space to distance herself from the issues and free up her thinking.
It doesn’t always work. Sometimes your volunteers do need your advice, but often what they really need is someone to just listen.
If you want to solve problems just by listening, the next time someone comes to you, get them to talk, to go in depth into the problem. What they see as causes and contributing factors. Let’s face it, if you’re going to give advice, you’ll need this information anyway. Then ask what they think the best solution is. You are likely to get an answer like “Well, I know we need to do this, but…”.
Now, as you might have noticed, the problem has changed. The true problem isn’t what they first came to you about. Instead, it’s the difficulty with implementing the solution. Encourage them to talk about that. By talking it out, they may find the answer to that, too. All without you offering anything but a sympathetic ear.
Imagine, instead, that when they first came to you, you tried to fix the original problem. You would have spent time and effort coming up with solutions that wouldn’t solve the real problem at all!
Sometimes, it’s a matter of confidence.
Your volunteer may have come up with a solution, but are too unsure of themselves to implement it without an outside opinion. They may be asking for your solution just to see if it’s the same or similar to theirs. By encouraging them to talk, you can get them to tell you their answer. Unless they’re way off course, have them put it in place. It will bolster their self-esteem and make them happier in their roles..
People are smart.
Most of us have the answers, but either we are too close to our problems and can’t see them objectively, or we lack confidence in our solutions. Both of these can be dealt with by just listening sympathetically and being encouraging.
A side benefit to this technique is that your volunteers will learn to trust their own judgement more, and will need to come to you less often for help.
I encourage you to try to solve problems just by listening. It won’t always work, but when it does you will see a strengthening of your volunteer program through the growth in the self-reliance of your volunteers, and they may come up with solutions that you might never have thought of. Test it out!