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A problem brought to you may not need your help to solve.

My mother, sister, and I were conversing recently through Facetime while sipping on our coffee-flavored coffee of choice. And as mothers do, she listened attentively to how my sister and I began to describe how others may have described what it is like working with us in our professional or personal lives. Separated by almost a decade in age and different career paths, we realized that we mobilize similarly when individuals ask for support. We admitted that the speed and attentiveness to solve problems that are brought to us casually have a precursor of unintentional judging. As we talked and our mother listened, we uncovered that our response time to help someone directly relates to how we interpret the historical performance of the individual’s work ethic to solve problems or aid the problems of others.

As we explored if this is a positive or negative attribute, we found that this judging was within our leadership style and personalities. With humility, we admitted that others have highlighted this attribute and indicated that this could be why some people may love or hate to work with us. Similar to military ambush training, we uncovered that this is a leadership style that we are the type that we are conditioned to run toward the problem. But if we are around someone who doesn’t try to solve their problems or isn’t conditioned to run towards a problem, we tend to avoid working with them. As our mother listened, we admitted this is not a characteristic we are always proud of, and we should commit to improving with good habit development. As our mother sat there in silence, we admitted that we were not sure of how this trait came about and our recollection noted that we rarely went to our parents asking for help. Our mother agreed to say, “and if we did, we knew you had a pretty bad problem that you had already tried everything you knew to solve.”

Then the following morning, words of wisdom were revealed to me in one of my routine podcasts. I just happened to be listening to the latest Adam Grant’s Re: Thinking, with Abby Wambach in an episode called Soccer star Abby Wambach on being good enough. It was a great episode to hear about her motivation and her interpretation of teamwork. I particularly liked how Abby described her process of preparing for a perfect cross as she entered the box. She described how she obsessively calculated, with an optimistic correction curve, how every cross would be served perfectly to her to finish it in the back of the net. But it was the end of the podcast when Abby indicated a personal habit that directly related to the conversation I was having with my mother and sister. She said, “when someone comes to me with a problem, I ask them, are you venting or are you asking me to help solve?”

I have been wrestling with this strategy since listening to the podcast. Am I too quick to assume that when someone comes to me, they want me to help solve a problem? As described earlier, those that I enjoy working with might not want my help but instead just want to vent. Do I routinely fail by helping solve their problem and micromanage something they didn’t want help with in the first place? Similarly, when someone who I tend to not like to work with comes with me with a problem, am I immediately assuming that they want my help? What I was unraveling was a problem starts with me, because I may tend to believe that everything is a problem that needs to be solved.

This got me thinking about who displays this ability to decipher if it is a problem that needs to be solved or someone just thinking out loud. Who around me should I replicate and practice their unique skill? I have to believe that I am not the only one that gets frustrated when asked a question by someone that hasn't put in the diligence to solve themselves yet.

Asking myself these questions, I began seeing individuals that have mastered the craft that I want to improve to be more like. I can commit to incorporating their skills into my personal and professional life to improve my ability to interpret if I am being asked to solve a problem or just hear someone think out loud. Here are my top three. Here we go.

Anyone that works at Trader Joe's - I don’t know what magical potion they drink or what training they receive (blog for another day), but no problem is beneath someone at Trader Joe’s to solve. The responses are in a method that they are more than an employer, they indeed are a customer too. Go to the cash register, and you feel obliged to assist with bagging because they personalize your shopping experience by interpreting what you need. They explore with questions like, what are your plans for the weekend or have you tried the other burrito yet? They are demonstrating an ability to determine their action to support you with your response to the question. It’s not about the latest burrito, instead, it is, do you need their assistance or do you want to just talk? Walk through an aisle and notice which customers their stockers talk to and which ones they don’t. You will notice that all of their employees are unlocking the intent of their reaction. They have honed mastery of knowing if someone needs a problem solved or if someone just wants to decide if they want to try the purple sweet potatoes or go with old faithful orange ones.

Dental hygienist - There is a perfect dance sequence as your teeth get cleaned. Your dental hygienist has subtle conversations with you as you lay in a position where you cannot talk as instruments are cleaning your teeth. Instead, you provide facial responses to indicate your interpretation of the conversation or the questions you are being asked. Then after you get the saliva sucked out with the tiny vacuum tube, your dental hygienist stops talking as if it is a binary condition of cleaning or not cleaning. What seems to be choreographed perfectly, you respond with a rebuttal, a statement, or a question. Then as smoothly as speaking transitioned to you, you stop talking to begin listening again. This back-and-forth is a rhythmic discussion of taking turns to discuss problems and insert moments for the other individual to just listen or give a rebuttal.

Butcher - Next time you are at the grocery store, and looking to get some produce to put on the grill, watch how your butcher engages with different customers. Watch how they seem to display an uncanny ability to use their proprioception to know if there is a problem to solve or not. They may see your eyes and body mechanics to know if they describe the different cuts of meat or sit there in silence as you make your self-agonizing decision. This is an ability to sense the pulse of the room and interpret if a problem needs to be solved or not. This is a master at work that is interpreting the scene to determine if you need their assistance or not.

These are three masters in the art of solving problems for others. Since embarking on this observation exercise, I saw plenty of others like crossing guards, janitors, and bartenders. I want to improve my ability to interpret the intent of the engagement, while also embracing Abby’s ability to ask her question if the intent is unknown. I want to improve my ability so that every problem that comes to me is not someone asking for help. Because it isn’t; some people, who are just like me, just need to vent. And that’s ok.


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