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Success Stories: Uncovering the Real Issue

Putting the Pieces Together

Putting the Pieces Together

As I was walking up the street with my daughter last week, we were discussing the start of school. Leila said she felt very “shy” about it. I was surprised to hear this as my younger daughter is an extrovert and often starts conversations with complete strangers—admiring their shoes or earrings. I reassured her by telling her that she isn’t a shy kid and besides she has lots of friends at school and the same teachers as last year. I could see that my response actually wasn’t very helpful.

Then I had an “aha” moment. I clued in to what my daughter was really worried about. For my second try, I said, “It must feel strange going to school for the whole day. Last year, you didn’t stay in the afternoon, right?” She agreed and said she felt shy about lunch. I let her know that I also felt nervous when I was doing something new. We then talked through the routine she would be going through and, since we happened to be going right past her school, we dropped in and chatted with her teacher. He reassured her that he would help her get her lunch and she could eat with him the first day if she wanted. When she replied that she might want to eat with her friends, I knew she would be fine.

The challenge I had with Leila was that when I first tried to help her, I didn’t recognize the real, underlying issue. She wasn’t shy—actually she was nervous—but she didn’t have the vocabulary to express her feeling exactly. I find that I often encounter this problem with my kids. They can’t always tell me the exactly what they’re feeling—and I try to treat the symptoms rather than the real issues. Adults can also be fooled by presenting issues. They work really hard at solving that problem, but they don’t get very far because they haven’t addressed the real problem.

One of my clients, Susan*, was referred to me for language coaching. Susan was great at her job—an IT professional and Team Leader for a mid-sized successful software company—but she had some troubles communicating with her team. She had been in Canada for several years. She was quite soft spoken and quiet. Her manager was worried about her English and felt that the company wasn’t seeing her full potential because she was having a hard time communicating with her team members and rarely spoke up in meetings.

Initially we worked with Susan on improving her pronunciation and learning appropriate ways to make small talk. Then, as we were focusing on how to give instructions and advice, we ran into the same challenge I had with Leila. There was an underlying issue that wasn’t being addressed.

Susan often felt frustrated with her team whom she felt turned to her for solutions without making an adequate attempt to solve the problem by themselves first. However, she expressed her frustration very indirectly—so much so that her team members thought she was giving them a choice when she was explaining a requirement. She would tell them to “think about looking it up and then come back to me for help.”

Then I had another “aha” moment. I realized that the issue wasn’t really the language—the issue was her leadership or lack of leadership with her team. I suggested that maybe she had trained them to come to her as THE problem solver. She agreed—for instance, she felt that she couldn’t go away for more than three days in a row without her team running into trouble.

At this point, our coaching direction shifted. We spent our session working on how she might manage her team better. We explored what she would gain if her team were more independent. Then we explored what her team would gain if given that chance to grow. We came back to the language issue and talked about how she was going to talk to her team about this new direction. Susan had to deal with both the presenting issue—knowing what kind of language to use—as well as the underlying issue—how she could manage her team members to encourage their independence and to do their best work.

This crops up a lot in language coaching. I often see a real need for language intervention—whether it’s helping people speak more clearly, working on grammatical structures, or increasing vocabulary, to name a few. However, there is often also a real need to address an underlying issue. Sometimes that issue is confidence, other times it’s a lack of leadership, a reluctance to make change, or a feeling of resentment about the changes that seem to be demanded. The underlying issues tend to be similar over a large pattern of presenting issues.

Before we started working together, Susan had been sent to a language school for quite some time, but she and her employers felt there was very little improvement. One of the reasons is probably because the language classes dealt with only the presenting issue, or the symptom. No doubt she learned better words to use, but her effectiveness in the office did not change. Through language coaching, she addressed the language issues along with the underlying issues related to her management approach. As a result, she became a much more confident and effective communicator.

This is a lesson we can all learn from. Before tackling a problem, we need to ensure we understand what it is really is. Once that is worked out, the solution becomes more apparent and we can move forward!

And I’m happy to report that Leila managed to move forward as well- her first lunch time at school went off without a hitch!

*Some details have been changed to protect people’s identities.

Andrea Griggs is the founder and president of Catalyst Communication Inc.