Problem-Solving Conversations – Drop the Advice and Help People Think for Themselves

Problem solving in Conversations Mary Rafferty Consensus Mediation

Facilitating people to come up with their own solutions rather than telling them what to do is probably the number one challenge most participants in Mediation training courses identify.

The skill or rather combination of micro-skills encompassed in an ‘Ask and Listen’ rather than ‘Tell and Sell’ approach to problem-solving are also essential competencies in Coaching.

Yet according to this Harvard Business Review article  ‘The Leader as Coach’  while many leaders aspire to ‘coaching’ their staff, for a variety of reasons ranging from lack of time to lack of skills, they tend to fall down when it comes to actually doing it on the job (2019).

But, so what?

What benefits does coach-like facilitation have over advice-giving as an approach to helping others solve their problems?

Does it matter whether the solution is ‘asked’ about or ‘told’ – as long as a solution is identified and pursued?

Surely, the reason any of us ask for help in the first place is that we are feeling stumped and need someone else to tell us what to do?

How helpful is your advice really?

This question is the topic of a recent Ted Talk from Michael B Stanier aptly entitled ‘How to tame your Advice Monster’. His witty and enlightening, must-watch talk outlines some of the key reasons we innocently fall into telling rather than asking when someone comes to us with a challenge they are having.

Most of our advice giving revolves around our own (as advice-giver) needs.
We like to be seen to have the answers, to ‘add value’ when someone asks for help, to rescue others from their stress and struggles. Sometimes our advice giving stems from a need to control the outcome.

But the downside of much of our advice-giving activity (there are of course times when it’s appropriate, useful and necessary) is that it subtly communicates the message that we know better

While our rush to come up with the answers might stem from positive intentions, this aspiration is equally matched by our conviction that we know how to solve their problem. As the article above highlights even when managers start off with an intention to ‘listen’ and help the other person think something through for themselves,  their  ‘how are things going’ open question quickly dissolves into ‘don’t you think…’ questions.

Although it’s got a question-mark at the end ‘Would you not try doing xxx instead?’ is just advice in drag.

Why asking and listening can be much more powerful

“Real help, professionally or personally, consists of listening to people, of paying respectful attention to people so that they can access their own ideas first.
Usually the brain that contains the problem also contains the solution

Nancy Kline, Time to Think (p.39, 1999)

We have all heard this before, yet it’s so tempting to jump in with our easy solutions to someone else’s dilemma or challenge.

Dr David Rock, Co-Founder of the Neuroleadership Institute posits a simple and visual model ‘The Four Faces of Insight’ on the neurology of problem solving. The model highlights how and why an ‘ask and listen’ approach can be a more powerful and engaging way to helping people find solutions to their own dilemmas. (See also his book Quiet Leadership Six Steps to Transforming Performance at Work)

Face 1: Awareness of Dilemma


The first ‘face’ or stage in resolving any dilemma is identifying you have one.
Our brain doesn’t like dilemmas or challenges.
Every piece of data – sounds, words, faces, persons, ideas we remember is stored as a series of maps or networks of neural connections in our brain. Any new thought, idea, decision, problem requires us to create a new map in our brain. This takes energy and effort because the brain has to compare any new mental maps with those already stored in the brain.
The creation of a new map requires that we process and build these connections ourselves. Nobody else can create them for us.

Becoming aware ‘this is a problem’ can bring with it a sense of inertia and resistance because of the energy and effort required. Our physical facial expression at this point is likely to be one of frustration, feeling stuck or feeling puzzled.

This is the point a person with a dilemma might reach out to a friend or a colleague or manager and ask for help. And it might seem like the kindest thing for you as that manager or friend, whose advice monster is waiting to be unleashed, to generously proffer your idea or solution to their problem.

Not so.

Instead, take a step back and ask some thought-provoking questions.

For example:

  • How can I best help you think this through?
  • What would you like to have more clarity on by the end of this conversation?
  • What would be a good outcome for you for this dilemma/issue?
  • What is the real challenge here for you?

Face 2: Reflection

The purpose of the question is to create a space whereby the other person is facilitated to bring their attention inwards. You are trying to help them tap into their unconscious mind and create those new neural pathways for themselves.


You can’t create those connections for them, that’s something their brain has to do.
This happens in Rock’s second stage or ‘face’ – the Reflection stage.
Our brain is now processing.
It’s often why people go quiet when they are thinking. Sometimes in helper mode, we misinterpret that silence to mean ‘they don’t understand what I’ve asked’ or ‘they need me to tell them what to do now’ Quite the opposite is true.

When your question is met with a ‘let me think about that…’ response it’s much more likely you’ve asked an effective question.
Rock also points out that a person’s eyes might be looking upwards, they might have a slightly dazed look on their faces, all hallmarks of someone who is working something through for themselves.

What’s critical also at this point is that the person’s brain is in a relaxed state.
As an aide to helping them explore their situation more fully you might now ask some additional questions.

Stanier recommends what he terms the AWE question – ‘And what else’. A favourite phrase of mine is ‘Say more about that’

Other questions that might help include

  • What’s most important to you about this issue?
  • What’s at the heart of this issue for you?
  • What’s most at stake for you here?
  • What do you really want for yourself in this situation?

Face 3: Illumination/Insight


The third stage is what Rock calls ‘illumination’ or ‘insight’. This phase is when we reach the ‘aha’ moment stage… the moment of ‘insight’. Some new ideas occur to us about how to resolve the dilemma or solve the problem.
It’s a mini-Eureka moment of satisfaction – like you might get when a word you’ve been mulling over in a crossword  hits you out of the blue hours later. We have made new connections in our brain. We have fresh thinking and insights about how to proceed.

But it takes a time for these insights to occur to us.
And, insights are more likely to happen when we are in a relaxed, unharried state of mind. Neuroscientists have found that people having insights were giving off alpha-band waves (the brain’s resting state) just beforehand.

Asking a few simple but powerful questions and creating a supportive listening space is one way of helping people come to their own insights.

Face 4: Motivation/Action


The buzz of energy we from the insight or ‘aha’ moment is accompanied by an energy rush and a motivation to act upon the new idea we have come up with. Neurotransmitters such as adrenalin are released when we create a new mental map which generate feelings of pleasure as well as an impetus to take action.

When people come up with their own insights and ideas in relation to a dilemma they will feel naturally engaged and motivated in relation to acting on those ideas.

Much easier than trying to ‘get someone to’ act on your well-intentioned but perhaps unwelcome advice.

So the next time a team member comes to you for help, resist the urge to jump in and tell them what you think they should do.
Instead, take a deep breath, a step back and create the conditions that can allows them to find their own best solution.