“I know exactly how you feel!” … ‘Sameing’ and how to avoid it.

August 25, 2016

Ever had someone say to you, “I know exactly how you feel! I was in the same situation. You should do what I did”?

How helpful did you find this advice? When I hear someone say this, I’m not sure how to feel. On the one hand I know they are trying to be helpful and offer me the benefit of their experience. It’s comforting to know I’m not alone in facing the situation I am in and I appreciate their good intentions. On the other hand, I’m not sure they feel exactly the same way and I don’t think that what worked for them will absolutely work for me. Even in similar circumstances, no two people are exactly alike so our reactions and feelings might be different. The problem I have with this kind of advice is that the person has gone from ‘relating’ to my problem to ‘sameing’ me, which ignores the uniqueness of my situation and takes away my chance to come up with a solution that will work best for me.

Here at CRE we spend a lot of time working with and supporting nonprofit managers, many of whom are promoted into their first supervisory roles from the front line. Nonprofits, like for-profits, promote staff into management positions to reward them for being really good at their jobs. Unfortunately, the skills that made them successful as a social worker, after-school teacher, or community organizer, are not necessarily the skills that will make them a good manager.

We believe it’s not only possible, but critical, for all professionals to develop the knowledge and skills to become better managers, especially as so many of them deliver crucial services to our communities. Management is not purely an innate talent, it can be learned. And one way we work to support managers in their development is through peer-coaching groups. The beauty of these groups is that the managers are working in similar organizations (e.g., community based nonprofits), in similar fields (e.g., youth development), in the same city (e.g., New York’s five boroughs), and in similar circumstances (e.g. all first-time supervisors). Given these similarities, they are quickly able to relate to one another’s challenges and can offer ideas and perspective that can help their peers solve problems.

However, like our friends from the start of this piece, one pitfall these managers frequently fall into is jumping from ‘relating’ to one another’s challenges to ‘sameing’ one another when generating solutions. ‘Relating’ helps the person who is bringing a challenge to the group realize that he or she is not alone. But ‘sameing’ can invalidate the uniqueness of the person’s situation. Even if the circumstances are the same, each person is different and brings their own strengths to the situation.

This problem is not just something that arises in peer coaching groups. It is also something managers can struggle with when interacting with their direct reports. Ever hear your boss say, “When I was in your position, I solved this problem by…”? When coaching a peer or a direct report, the goal should not be to solve the person’s problem, but to help them solve the problem in their own way. ‘Sameing’ the person by telling them what you have done does not help them to do this. Instead you could try these four steps to get away from ‘sameing’ and back to ‘relating’ and helping:

  1. WAIT and avoid immediate ‘solutioning’
    Start by focusing on really listening. If you feel the urge to jump in with a solution ask yourself, “Why Am I Talking (WAIT)?” You best leverage your strength as a coach by holding back. Our peers are probably coming to us for help because they’ve already tried the solutions that come to mind immediately! Don’t presume that your suggestions are new for them.
  2. Learn to recognize when you are in danger of going from ‘relating’ to ‘sameing’
    You can do this by checking the language you use (in your head and in the room). As an example “I know exactly how you feel!” is likely a statement that is leading you into a ‘sameing’ frame. We know that this statement can’t be true (as appealing as that might be), because all people are intrinsically different, so learn to catch yourself thinking it before you say it.
  3. Test your assumption of sameness
    Check your hypothesis of sameness by asking open-ended questions. For each assumption you are making, pose a question that explores that assumption. For example, instead of “Have you tried X to help you delegate better?” try, “Do you believe that age relative to your staff plays a role in how you delegate?” or better yet, “What makes it difficult for you delegate?” To formulate these questions, ask yourself: “What assumptions have I made about their challenge?
  4. Try not to tell people what they should do
    Remember that what works for you may not work for them; ultimately it’s their choice whether the options you present fit for them. It’s helpful to say what you think, but not what they must do. People are more likely to try something if they arrive at it themselves, and feel that they have choice.

By Senior Consultant, Brad Luckhardt

Many of the ideas presented in this article have been drawn from Schein, E. H. (1999). Process consultation revisited: Building the helping relationship. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.

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