I’m an engager.
Meaning: put a problem, a question, a concern in front of me, my instinct is to dive right in. Always.
So, I found it confusing when, a few years ago, a coach I was working with encouraged me to practice saying, “That’s a great point, let me think about it and get back to you.”
To me, this response felt tepid and disingenuous, a way to feign interest in reflection to avoid meaningful, heated debate.
But, much as I love Star Trek and the inimitable Jean-Luc Picard, I’ve come to learn the limitations of my always-on engagement approach.
The first and biggest problem with always engaging is the inadvertent trade between listening and responding. When we (always and immediately) jump into “let’s solve that problem” mode, we can, ironically, make people feel less heard. Diving into potential fixes can skip past properly sitting with the problem. The result is missing the opportunity to express solidarity and empathy. Worse, we ignore the fact that often what people care most about is being heard – it is nearly always more important than finding any big solution.
So, try, “It sounds like what you’re saying is [this]. And I imagine that is challenging because [this],” and see where that leads.
Second, jumping ahead to problem-solving means we typically are accepting—hook, line, and sinker—that what the person has said is an accurate representation of what is wrong / of what they are feeling. In truth, it’s just as likely that the first presentation of the problem is what is easiest to say. Before we start solving the problem, we need to make sure we understand what it is. The answer, then, is to express curiosity and inquiry before jumping in.
Such as, “I see. That makes sense. Can you say a little bit more about that?”
Finally, any successful discussion of a difficult topic requires both (all) people involved to be able to productively manage their emotions. This means that we must dance in the productive zone of disequilibrium, maintaining the “heat” of the conversation we’re having without either letting it either (a) dissipate to quickly or, more likely; (b) overwhelm our ability to stay engaged in the conversation.
I don’t want to encourage avoiding serious, real conversations. But I also have seen how easily these conversations can spiral negatively when not managed properly. If one or both of the people involved lacks the skill to navigate heat successfully, no solution is possible: when pushed too hard too fast, our minds can only process emotions like fear, anger or shame.
“That’s a great point, let me think about it and get back to you,” when said honestly and with good intent, really means, “this is important to me, and I need time to process it.”
It also might say, “I’m concerned that my emotions are spiking to a place where I can’t productively engage in this right now. So let’s come back to it later.”
Now, if you’re not an engager—if you know that you’re more likely to avoid the “real” conversation—then this strategy is probably not for you.
But if you’re like me, this might be an important tool to add to your arsenal.
Because, on top of everything else, we’re all less able than we think to hear and process, in real time, a different, difficult perspective.
Buying ourselves a little time allows us to properly reflect on new points of view. It’s a way to give ourselves time to do the work that we, individually, need to do before engaging with our counterpart to work through the issue at hand.