Stop Solving The Wrong Problem


As a general rule of thumb, people are crappy listeners. Even if we hear the words and even if we work to understand them, we can still misunderstand. And if we are not hearing or thinking, we really can screw-up the intended message.

Just as a majority of drivers think they have above average driving skills, most people think they are good at listening. I contend that instead of being good listeners, they are good at reaching their own conclusions whether they listened well or not. We think we know something and stop paying attention. We may be disinterested and jump to an easy conclusion. We may think we are smarter than the person talking and find our own meaning.

I have a friend that believes she is a great driver because she’s not been in an accident. She tailgates while putting on make-up, talking on her cell phone, eating, and playing with the radio. I believe that she is not a great driver, she is protected by the good drivers around her. These are the people that see the real danger and give her room to recover from her mistakes and poor reaction times.

Teenage girl standing in classroom. Doing exercise on blackboard. Side view

There are many in business that behave the same way in their listening. They hear part of an idea and jump to their own conclusions while checking emails and Facebook, texting, and making grocery lists.

Later they will repeat their assumptions and conclusions to others as if this was what they heard. In truth, it is part of something they heard that they morphed to suit their own agenda or perspective.

Our individual history and collection of experiences creates our personal perspective. Each person’s perspective is unique and has  filters and assumptions built in before we even start a discussion. In other words, when it comes to listening and true understanding, the deck is stacked against us before we even start.

Even if we don’t realize these filters and biases, they are at work. We have automatic thoughts we may not even realize. This leads us to all types of problems in understanding what we hear.

–  We solve a problem we “heard,” not the problem presented.

–  We look for things to prove our view is right instead of a deep understanding of the speaker’s view.

–  We look for things to prove the speaker is wrong instead of how they are correct.

–  We daydream, perhaps triggered by something the speaker said that had a personal meaning unrelated to the speaker’s topic.

–  We hear part of an idea, then assume we know all the rest of it.

All this poor listening and lack of proper understanding leads so many of us to expend significant effort solving the problem we “heard,” not the real problem. What a waste.

The trick to avoiding all of this confusion is rather simple, even if it is an uncommon solution. Pay attention. Real attention. Listen for the meaning presented, not a meaning you seek or assume. If unclear, ask questions instead of making up things just to fill gaps. Stop multitasking and focus.

In our office we often say, “The fastest way to solve a problem is to do it right.” That includes taking the right steps to understanding the problem the first time so we don’t have to solve it twice. Do we get this right every time? Of course not, but we never stop working to get better. Understanding others is a skill and it takes practice. Never ending practice. The reward is the success of solving more problems the first time.


Glenn S. PhillipsGlenn S. Phillips is the author of the book Nerd-to-English: Your Everyday Guide to Translating Your Business, Your Messages, and Yourself.  You can email Glenn directly at

Glenn is also the president of Forte’ Incorporated, a consulting firm that works with business leaders to understand and address the often hidden technology and business risks lurking within their organizations.

© Copyright 2012. Glenn S. Phillips, Forte’ Incorporated. (205) 985-1111


About the Author

Glenn S. Phillips works with leaders who want to leverage technology and understand risks within. An author and blogger, Glenn is often quoted in national media, plays a really ugly tuba (it even has a bullet hole) and is a fan of dark chocolate and great puns.