Problem-Solving in Communication: 3 Skills to Master

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "The Advice Trap" by Michael Bungay Stanier. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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How does problem-solving in communication work? What skills do you need for conversational problem-solving?

According to leadership expert Michael Bungay Stanier, problem-solving in communication is all about adopting a questions-first approach, which results in more productive solutions. By learning to think like a coach, you can let your curiosity lead the way when faced with a problem, says Stanier.

Read on to learn Stanier’s three essential skills for problem-solving in communication.

Problem-Solving & Communication Skills

In The Advice Trap, author Michael Bungay Stanier claims that the best leaders don’t offer advice when faced with a problem—instead, they adopt a questions-first approach, which fosters a more confident, effective, and growth-driven team. Problem-solving in communication should be driven by curiosity, argues Stanier. He says the key to this approach is learning to think like a coach, which requires you to shift your focus away from yourself and onto others. 

To be a good coach, you should focus on developing three skills:

  1. Being supportive 
  2. Asking questions
  3. Focusing on the main challenge

In this article, we’ll explain Stanier’s methods for problem-solving in communication by developing or improving on these three skills.

#1: Being Supportive

If you’re trying to solve a problem, Stanier writes that communication can only be productive if the people involved feel safe. He offers four suggestions to make people less defensive:

1) Be on their team—be with them, not against them. Validate their feelings with encouraging words and body language such as: “That’s a very smart point,” or a simple, “Great thought!”

2) Be communicative—talk about what’s next in your conversation so that people know what to expect. Transition between topics so that people can follow comfortably.

3) Help them feel important—ask, praise, and affirm their opinions. Lower your authority so that communication can be open and effective. 

4) Help them make choices—ask them for their thoughts so they can help direct the conversation. Instead of giving advice, ask: “What options are you considering?”

Conversational Intelligence: Cultivating Good Conversations With Trust

In many ways, Stanier’s suggestions on reducing defensive instincts in conversations relate to what Judith Glaser defines as “conversational intelligence.” Glaser agrees that trust is a fundamental cornerstone of high-quality conversations. In Conversational Intelligence, she explains that our brains react differently to people we trust versus people we distrust. When someone trusts you, their brain produces positive hormones that improve the desire to collaborate and connect. On the other hand, distrust results in the production of stress hormones, which may make people more defensive and reluctant to talk to you.
By adopting Stanier’s four recommendations when communicating, you can break down these walls of distrust and ensure that your conversations reach their fullest potential.

#2: Asking Questions

Stanier identifies being curious as a coach’s defining trait—to pause, take a back seat, and ask questions, as opposed to jumping to give advice. Once you help others lower their defenses, you can have an open and productive discussion led by questions instead of commands. Asking questions helps you remain focused and your team members feel supported. Stanier offers several communication tips on how to effectively ask questions to solve problems:

Tip #1: Just start asking. Don’t waste time introducing or justifying your question, just ask the question to get the conversation started. However, only ask one at a time.

(Shortform note: Experts agree with Stanier’s recommendation of asking a single question at a time, reasoning that asking too many questions at once can make a conversation feel like an interrogation. Even if you’re just trying to understand the situation, firing off multiple questions before waiting for an answer can overwhelm the other person, preventing them from giving deep and thoughtful answers.)

Tip #2: Ask “What” questions. Asking questions like “What methods have you used?” sound more open and non-accusatory compared to “why” questions that might put people on the defensive like “Why did you do it like that?” Avoid rhetorical questions like “Have you thought about—,” which are only advice in disguise.

(Shortform note: Like Stanier, many experts support asking open-ended questions to foster successful conversations. They explain that asking closed questions like, “Did you try this solution here?” limits the flow of a conversation more than, “What solutions have you tried so far?” The former question prompts for a one-word answer—“yes” or “no,” whereas the latter allows the responder to provide more context and information that they may feel is important to express.)

Tip #3: Embrace silences. Don’t try to fill every break in the conversation. If you pause and actively listen to their answers, you can understand the situation better.

(Shortform note: In Radical Candor, Kim Scott makes a distinction between quiet listening and loud listening, arguing that a good leader adjusts their listening style according to the needs of their team. Stanier’s tip mostly highlights silent listening, which involves deliberately inserting silence during a conversation to give room for people to think and express themselves. However, Scott argues that certain situations can benefit from loud listening, which involves directly stating something to elicit a response. This method can help prevent people from wasting time guessing what you’re thinking.)

Tip #4: Validate their answers. Help others feel heard and understood with phrases like “That makes sense,” or “I see how that can feel frustrating.”

(Shortform note: Therapists define validation as recognizing and understanding another person’s feelings regardless of your personal opinions. Studies have shown that in situations where someone is experiencing negative emotions such as frustration or anger, providing validating comments can help promote flexible thinking, curiosity, and a more positive outlook on the situation. Therefore, validating another person’s answers to your questions helps your conversation continue in an open and productive manner.)

#3: Focusing on the Main Challenge

Stanier writes that when we jump in with advice, we often end up brainstorming solutions to unimportant or secondary issues. He advises that you instead take time to properly identify the true issue at the core of the problem. He notes that this can be challenging, and he outlines several obstacles you might run into during a conversation that can make it hard to determine the real issue at hand or that might tempt you into avoiding hard conversations. These obstacles can be grouped into two categories, and you can use the questions above to move past them.

Obstacle 1: Unfocused Start

Stanier notes that the first thing a person identifies as the source of their problem is rarely the true heart of the problem. A person might blame someone who isn’t present (for example, by saying, “This person hasn’t responded to my email”) or might be vague about their struggles (such as by saying, “This email is taking a while” instead of “I’m struggling with how to word this email”). When this happens, your communication should focus on asking questions to get to and solve the underlying problem. 

To handle an unfocused start, you can:

  1. Acknowledge that you’re off-topic—“I’m not entirely sure, but I don’t think we’ve gotten to the real issue yet.”
  2. Focus the conversation on them— “Let’s focus on what we have in front of us. What’s the main obstacle that you’re facing?”

Obstacle 2: Information Overload

When someone starts listing too many problems at once—such as factoring their financial struggles and long commute into their work problems—or launching into detailed gossip, your communication loses focus and the problem becomes difficult to solve.

To handle a conversation with information overload, you can:

  1. Acknowledge that it’s a lot of information—“It looks like we have a lot going on here.”
  2. Direct focus to the main problem—“Let’s start with the main challenge. What’s the biggest obstacle you’re facing here?”
Identifying Your Conversational Blind Spots

While Stanier encourages being aware of conversational pitfalls the person you’re speaking with might stumble into, Judith Glaser in Conversational Intelligence adds onto this by describing four blind spots that you should try to avoid when problem-solving in communication:

1) Shared Thinking—Like Stanier, Glaser warns against letting your impressions of the issue lead the conversation. She explains that we tend to believe other people think in the same way we do and suggests that we remind ourselves that others may have different thoughts.

2) Distrust—When someone’s being vague about their struggles, they might be fearful of your judgment, causing an “unfocused start.” Similarly, Glaser recommends you take note of any feelings of defensiveness you might have in these situations. Such feelings might prevent you from understanding where the other person’s coming from and hold you back from correctly naming the real problem up front.

3) Subjectivity—Another obstacle that Glaser points out is the subjectivity of our memories. She points out that we might have an impression of a conversation that isn’t entirely accurate. As with Stanier’s obstacles, letting these subjective memories affect how we conduct future conversations can get in the way of discovering the real issue.

4) Misinterpretation—Like Stanier, Glaser notes that meaning can often get lost during a conversation, especially during moments of “information overload.” Since you won’t always be able to tell if the other person misinterpreted what you said during your talk, Glaser suggests double-checking at the end to clear up any possible confusion.
Problem-Solving in Communication: 3 Skills to Master

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  • Why advice-giving can lead to more problems than solutions
  • Why questions are more beneficial than suggestions
  • How to combat your impulse to give unsolicited advice

Emily Kitazawa

Emily found her love of reading and writing at a young age, learning to enjoy these activities thanks to being taught them by her mom—Goodnight Moon will forever be a favorite. As a young adult, Emily graduated with her English degree, specializing in Creative Writing and TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language), from the University of Central Florida. She later earned her master’s degree in Higher Education from Pennsylvania State University. Emily loves reading fiction, especially modern Japanese, historical, crime, and philosophical fiction. Her personal writing is inspired by observations of people and nature.

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