Last night, as part of our bedtime routine, I rocked with my two children and asked them questions about their day. My four-year-old son announced that he needed to talk to me when we were done, which seemed to defeat the whole purpose of the exercise of asking them about their day, so I sent his two-year-old sister off with daddy and I settled in to have a discussion with my son.
After readjusting on my lap several times, my son took a deep breath and forced out the words “I need to quit gymnastics” and then stopped talking. I gave him a minute to elaborate on his own accord, which he did not, so I asked a few questions. Was he upset by something that had happened in gymnastics? Did he have a disagreement with someone? Did his coach do something to upset him? All my questions were met with indifference and a prompt “no”.
As a parent, I started to worry about things that parents worry about; is someone bullying him? Is the coach acting inappropriately? But I was able to recognize the worry train before I had a chance to fully board, so I chose to sit with him in silence for a few minutes and keep my thoughts to myself.
Then in a meek voice, my son announced that he wants to quit gymnastics because “it sometimes runs long, and it cuts into his lunch hour” which was completely unacceptable to him, as lunch is his favorite subject in Montessori. Relief came over me. Now this was a problem I understood; lunch was my favorite subject in school too.
After a brief discussion about the angst of missing valuable eating time, I assured him that I would confront this issue with his teacher the very next day. With that assurance, my son was able to relax and fell fast asleep.
This morning, during drop off at school, I was able to have a discussion with our son’s teacher regarding his infinity for lunch and the desire to protect that special time. The teacher explained that gymnastics did not overlap with lunch time, but she did recognize our son’s problem with eating his food in a timely manner and understood how he could feel rushed.
The teacher’s solution was to have him go wash hands ten minutes before lunch so he could get started right away while the other children washed up. Our son was present during this conversation and seemed content with this solution, as was I. Problem solved, at least for the moment.
This experience reinforced my belief that giving a person time and space to be vulnerable and think through their concerns is extremely effective to foster meaningful connection and reminded me that this type of communication does not come intuitively for me.
It also was a crude reminder that children are products of their environment. My son came to me with a solution instead of telling me his problem, a skill he likely learned from me.
In business, it is common for leaders to tell their employees to come with solutions in mind when addressing an issue. Brainstorming sessions and meetings to talk through possibilities are very much the norm in all types of organizations. I have put the ownness back on people who came to me with an issue many times in my life, and in the process often left them feeling I had dismissed the existence of their problem in the first place.
Had I taken that approach with my son, he would no longer be enrolled in gymnastics and would still likely struggle with eating his lunch in the time allotted to him. While it is too soon to tell if the solution of washing his hands before everyone else is effective, the conversation has been started surrounding the problem, not the solution. The motivation is clear when it has to do with my children, I want them to feel loved, safe, and secure. And in my son’s case, I want him to enjoy his favorite subject in school, lunch.
Outside of family, this approach is a bit more difficult to take. In the rental business, it is easy to get caught up in the solutions of tenets. The air conditioning needs to be fixed or the water is too hard or fill in the blank for endless line of suggestions for better living. This is part of the reason many property owners have very little to do with the tenets themselves and have management companies and caretakers sort through these suggestions masked as complaints.
If the problem is a tenet is hot, the cause may be the air conditioner is broken or it may be something else. The problem lies within the tenets experience and while often there is something that can be done to improve the quality of life in apartment living, those efforts are meaningless if not put into context with the actual problem is. Without proper context, a perfectly functioning air conditioner might be replaced when really the issue was the heat was still on at the same time as the air. Or a water softener replaced when really only the shower head needed to be updated.
Like most things that make me a more useful person, empathetic listening to fully understand the problem, while refraining from letting my solution focused thinking dominate the conversation, is something that I need to consciously focus on practicing in my day-to-day life.
Today, I will glean wisdom from my son’s lunch dilemma by remembering how far I could have derailed his progress had I taken the solution he presented without listening to his problem. I will strive to allow those around me in conflict to take the time they need to express their concerns as they understand them, not as I would like to solve them.