Listen versus Fix

Half the challenge of communication is that it's not clear what people want or need from a conversation. Part of communication clarity is being able to ask for what you need. How often have you experienced someone venting to you about a challenge? Don’t you find that your natural instinct is to jump in and try and fix their problem? That’s not always what they need. Sometimes it’s the simple act of listening is all that's needed. The more we work with leaders and their teams who are not aligned or who are experiencing communication breakdowns the more that we are teaching a fundamentality simple lesson. Ask people to define what they need from conversations with a peer, leader or colleague. Here are a few simple steps.

  1. Clarify the topic.
  2. Declare if it’s a venting conversation and that you just need to be listened to or if you need help processing ideas and creating a solution.
  3. If it’s to vent or process thoughts underscore that you just need to release frustration or brainstorm so that you can move on or hear yourself think. This will make sure that the other person can effectively listen and offer support without feeling the need to fix.
  4. If you need a fix (i.e. help processing ideas or creating solutions) design with the other person the best way to do that i.e. let's brainstorm some ideas or help me unfold what you are hearing and point me to some options I'm not seeing.
  5. Thank the person for processing with you. Your ability to say what you are taking away from the conversation helps reinforce the power of constructive and effective communication for both of you.
  6. Take action so that you shift your awareness towards creating resolution or implementing new ideas. Remember talk with no action means no change.

Learning how to have mutually effective conversations especially related to hot topics or hard issues is a signature of respect and is foundational to healthy relationships. It's so simple - be clear about what you need and ask for it. Don’t expect others to be mind readers!


This post is dedicated to my husband Peter Hawke. He taught me about the importance of declaring what I need from him when we communicate. One day he said, “I’m a guy. If you come to me with a problem I’m going to fix it. However, I think that most of time you really just want me to listen. It helps if you tell me if it’s a fix it or listen conversation.” Such wisdom and it really does help when I declare what I need before starting. He’s always been a brilliant fixer and is an equally good listener.