The Irony of Care
It was nearly 20 years ago.
I had a dear friend who was suffering from bipolar depression.
I wanted to help.
At the time, I had recently graduated from college with a degree in computer science. I prided myself in being an excellent problem solver. So I was determined… to solve my friend’s problem.
So What did I do? Well, I started by reading books, articles, papers, you name it, I read them all.
After gaining enough understanding of the theory of depression, I went to a local support group looking for some practical advice.
What I learned there was that the best way to help my friend was to try and empathize with her.
What this meant was that the next time my friend got depressed, I was to sit down with her and listen to her carefully. Once I could understand how she’s feeling and why, I was to express this understanding back to her. According to the people at the support group, if my understanding was correct, my friend will feel understood and that’ll make her feel better.
I was surprised.
It sounded too easy to be true.
But then I tried.
The whole time I was trying to empathize with her, she kept yelling, screaming, and bawling. Telling me that I did not understand.
What was I supposed to do? I kept changing what I said, over and over and over again, hoping… that I would eventually get through to her.
But I couldn’t.
Nearly half an hour went by and I was just sitting there with all my energy drained, exhausted and unable to figure out what I was missing.
But then… something occurred to me.
I suddenly remembered that, earlier in the day, I had said something to her, which, in hindsight, was hurtful.
So I told her that.
And like magic, she stopped yelling and screaming, as she sat there sobbing… while I finally… empathized with her.
What I realize now is that everything I’d been telling her up to that point was framed in such a way that it was all. her. fault, and I had nothing to do with it.
This was not because I had malicious intent. In fact, I had great intentions. I cared for her. I wanted to help.
Yet, I had framed the situation as a problem to be solved. And in doing so, 3 things happened to my mindset. 3 things… that lead me to do more harm than good.
Now, what were they?
Distancing for Division
First of all, I played the role of a problem solver. In doing so, I subconsciously distanced myself from my friend, to the point where I felt sufficiently divided from her.
Why did I do this? Because my friend was the one with the problem, not I.
How can a problem solver possibly be a part of the problem? They can’t. It makes perfect sense for us to be divided.
But of course, in the end, I realized that I was, in fact, a part of the problem.
Elevating for Judgement
Second of all, in treating my friend as someone with a problem, I subconsciously elevated myself above her, to the point where I considered myself to have the superior authority to judge. Judge not only her problem as bad, but also my understanding of the problem as right.
Why? Well… Because I spent months studying depression. I may not have been the world’s expert, but I was surely a better judge than she was!
But of course, in the end, I realized that I was not a good judge at all. She was feeling the way she was, not because of depression, but because of something hurtful I had said.
So she was not wrong to reject my understanding. In fact, if anybody was wrong, it was me. I was wrong.
Fixating on a Solution
Finally, I fixated on a pre-existing solution.
Why? First of all, when you frame a situation as a problem to be solved, it’s only natural that you start to have ideas on the solution.
Imagine coming across a nail popping up on the floor. Wouldn’t you immediately imagine a floor with the nail hammered flat?
Now guess what solution I imagined for my friend?
She. just had. to. cheer. up!
What a beautifully simple solution, right?
I was also convinced that this was the right solution. Why? The same reason why I judged my understanding of her as right. I assumed I had the superior authority to judge.
But of course, in the end, I not only realized that my solution was wrong, but that the actual solution was completely new and unexpected. Yet, it was also so very obvious, simple, and even logical in hindsight. So much so that I could not understand why I hadn’t thought of in the first place.
Empathizing and Not Empathizing
Empathizing is feeling connected or at one with an “other.” Reflecting on my mindset at the time, I now clearly see that I was making it harder for myself to empathize with my friend.
Looking back… Another thing that surprised me was that, in the end, she thanked me.
Why was this surprising?
Because I realized that that is what I had been needing from her the whole time.
I needed to make a contribution to her life. I needed to matter to her. I needed to feel appreciated for caring so much about her. So much so that I felt indignant of how ungrateful she was for not letting me fulfill these needs.
But of course, in the end, I realized that the way I was expressing my care and contribution actually got in the way… of my receiving the very appreciation… I so much needed.
Such… is what I call the “irony of care.”
Now, let me be clear.
I do not wish to criticize the problem solving mindset.
A problem solving mindset is most certainly appropriate when faced with a problem like so:
1 + 1 = ___
- You cannot influence the problem, which means you cannot be a part of the problem. Thus, it makes no difference that you divide yourself from the problem.
- There’s no ambiguity around what is right/wrong or good/bad. Thus, you can assume to have the superior authority to judge.
- There is only one solution. Feel free to fixate on it.
Problem solve away if these conditions are met. It is only when these conditions are not met that you need an alternative mindset.
Now that I’m in my 40s, it’s been almost 20 years since the time of the incident with my friend. Yet, I still find this event to be a gift that keeps on giving.
In my work, I frequently work with CEOs who have no choice but to frame employee growth and engagement as a problem to be solved. I also work with employees who have no choice but to frame executive leadership as a problem to be solved. They both inevitably find out that problem solving is ill-suited for the situation. How do they find out? Usually, when the employees don’t grow much or leave and the executives start to burn-out or become even more agitated.
I recently gave a keynote at Cleveland Clinics’s Patient-Experience Summit, where I learned that doctors had framed patient-care as a problem to be solved. The patients, of course, had framed these doctors’ approach to care as a problem to be solved. As a result, not only were patients not getting any better and leaving to other hospitals, but the doctors were burning out as well. They had both learned that problem solving is ill-suited for the situation.
To judge any of these as good/bad or right/wrong misses the point. This is merely what happens naturally when we individually do not have the freedom to choose an alternative mindset to problem solving. It is also a natural byproduct of an environment that doesn’t make it any easier for people to empathize with each other.
Learning to choose an alternative mindset or designing an environment that makes it easier for people to empathize with each other is a difficult challenge. At the same time, if we’re willing and motivated, we can learn to do it through deliberate practice.
Next time, I will write about an alternative to the problem solving mindset. In the meanwhile, here’s a question you can ask yourself to get started:
“Why is the problem solving mindset appropriate in relation to the problem I’m faced?”