Go to Top

What to Do When You Can’t Solve the Problem

Many of the executives I work with are terrific problem solvers. They are inventive, determined, intelligent. It’s one of the main reasons they got to where they are today. But what happens when the problem isn’t one that can be solved—like death or a terminal illness? Or someone doesn’t want you to solve the problem for them? Or you don’t have the experience or skills or resources and don’t know where to turn? How can an inveterate problem solver be effective?

The answer is simple, really. Stop talking. Give the person your full attention. Listen with all your heart. Tell the truth about your experience. Trust that resolution will come without you and that your caring and presence is enough. Lao Tsu called this experience “non-doing.” Non-doing doesn’t mean doing nothing, it means paying attention to your experience and to what another person is experiencing without doing anything to “fix” it. It is also recognizing that paying attention is often enough.

All of us have heard the jokes about married couples experiencing the frustration of problem solving gone wrong when one of them (often the woman) discusses a problem she’s having. Her husband, with a sincere desire to help, gets out the proverbial toolkit and starts troubleshooting. “Did you try x,” he’ll say. She, a little frustrated because of course she tried x, will continue on but with an edge to her voice. “How about y,” her husband says. Now his wife is getting really frustrated and maybe a bit insulted. Because she doesn’t want his advice. She just wants him to listen. If he listens she can figure out the problem herself. Or she just needs to know someone cares and understands.

The same thing happens between parents and children or bosses and subordinates. It happens sometimes in really difficult situations when we want to help someone we love through all illness or the death of a loved one. We give advice, or we try to problem solve. And sometimes that’s the worst thing we can do.

Experts, as well as people who have experienced great tragedy, tell us that the people who were most helpful were the people who gave support through being there to listen when the sufferer wanted to talk. It is non-doing. It is not interfering with the flow of life but supporting it.

This is a tough stance for a chronic doer. I recommend acquiring the gift of non-doing in small steps. First, simply pay attention to your reactions to problems. What does your body do? Does your heart rate increase? Do you feel tension or release anywhere in your body? What are your thoughts? What emotions are you experiencing? By observing yourself, you delay doing. You have some time to think. Second, ask yourself if the person wants—or needs-- your help. Is non-doing going to be more productive than doing? Third, breathe deeply and into your belly. It will relax you and help you respond more slowly. Fourth, lean back and down (you are probably leaning forward and up—that’s a common problem solving stance). Allow yourself to relax into the conversation. Notice when your mind starts to wander and repeat the steps.

When you practice non-doing you are giving the other person a tremendous gift. And perhaps you’ll find that you’re giving one to yourself as well.

Plum Cluverius is a leadership and executive coach practicing in Richmond, Virginia.

Leave a Reply