Empathy or solution?
"It's the quality (not quantity) that counts."
"Less is more."
In solving multi-facetted and complicated problems, I prefer to talk to different people who don't know each other and who cannot collude behind my back to discuss my problem and reach a joint conclusion. Because such informal survey participants don't know each other, they are able to look at a problem from their own perspective and give independent and impartial advice.
Listeners need to first understand my problem. Then they might share their own experiences to get to the empathy stage. Finally, they reach the advice giving stage, tho' this is not always the case. For women, in particular, having someone who listens well is often more important than receiving good advice from someone who doesn't appear to have listened. The ability to empathise is very important during this process. I, for one, find it difficult to accept advice from someone who is not empathetic.
Recently I made the mistake of talking to people who were unable to empathise because of their lack of experience and interest in the problem. In some cases, conducting a survey with the wrong participant, such as someone who wants to remain on good terms with me, can affect a relationship in a negative way --- because of the signalling effect of communication. [A message is communicated not only by its content but also the way it is delivered. Because it takes two to tango, a message can be misinterpreted and misunderstood.]
Talking to the right person makes a huge difference, for only then do you get quality empathy and quality advice. In conducting surveys like this, I falsely get into the "more is more" thinking. Actually, "less is more" because quantity isn't better than quality. The more people you talk to, the more confused you can become.
Conducting surveys like this also relieves you of the responsibility of tackling the problem yourself. You can easily detach yourself from the problem and choose what appears to be "majority rule" --- which is still what other people think, not what you think.
If the solution to your problem depends strongly on your value system and your stage in life, you might get confused when you talk to someone who has a totally different value system from you and who is at a totally different stage in life. It won't help to talk to someone who is also facing the same problem but who is nowhere near solving it. For example, because men are built and conditioned very differently from women, they can't answer questions on motherhood the way women can.
The solution to your problem might appear initially as a gut feeling. For example, you don't want to get married. Questioning your gut feeling, you decide to survey happily married couples. It doesn't take a PhD to get the majority conclusion that getting married is a good thing. But your gut feeling is strong. So you decide to survey unhappily married couples, divorcees, and singletons. Guess what? You conclude that marriage is not a good thing. You only end up justifying or falsifying your gut feeling.
Conducting such surveys, while shedding new light on your problem, may give you more information than you need. This could prevent or delay you from solving the problem and moving on. Prolonged lack of closure is distressing. By collecting more and more solutions, you become alienated from your gut instinct. Who is doing the choosing here? The excuses, other people's opinions and advice, what's happened in another time and place, etc ---- or what really matters to you? You!
Before you begin consulting other people, be sure you are aware of your gut feelings. Otherwise, you are simply seeking empathy (which makes you feel better but doesn't help you arrive at the solution) or solutions that take you on a "more is more" merry-go-round.
16 May 2004 Sunday
of indecision, Le Bon Journal Newsletter,