Problem Solving the Helpful Way

three ways to be a helpful helper mouse: 1. dig a problem hole, 2. present unchecked solutions, 3. ask about THE solution

Sometimes when we come up against problems and have exhausted all our internal resources, we turn to a friend, or partner for their input. They now have three ways to react to your request for help. We assume that they act in good faith and want to be a helpful helper mouse.

Version 1.

The helpful helper mouse hears your description of the problem and wants to understand it better. So the mouse asks lots of interesting questions about the problem and how bad it is and before you know it, you and the helpful helper mouse are sad and discouraged, sitting in a deep dark hole you dug yourself.

I have to admit that more often than not, I resort to this little gem of problem solving strategy.

Version 2.

The helpful helper mouse hears your description and immediately starts presenting you with infinitely specialized and actionable strategies and solutions. As they are they are nice, and nicely actionable, but unfortunately all over the place and you start feeling more and more overrun and paralyzed.

More often than not I have run into people using this strategy to try and help me. I find it difficult to deal with. I feel pressure and disengage from the conversation, but a negative feeling remains. What I would like from the person instead is…

Version 3.

The helpful helper mouse listens to your description and after a pause starts asking about the solution, assuming that you, or some future version of you has a solution, even if right now you don’t know a lot about the solution.

What does your solution feel like?
What are the values that the solution needs to align with?
What needs does this solution fulfill?
Are there any parameters that you know now?
Can you identify any elements of your solution?
What do all these clues remind you of?

This method gives agency to the person with the problem and dramatically increases the likelihood of finding a solution that suits the person and is actually actionable for them. You don’t have to restrain yourself to only asking supportive questions and recording the conversation, though those are your most important functions. You can offer ideas of your own to supplement the persons informations, tell anecdotes of how you solved similar situations, but you do need to accept that their experience is theirs and the decision theirs to make.

It is difficult to stick to this. Being asked to help triggers our knight in shining armor patterns, we want to heroically save our friend when they do not need saving, only a friendly ear.

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