Context is everything …

Some of my colleagues call me “Mr. Fix It” while the users I support call me a magician. That’s because I am good at fixing problems and getting to the root of an issue. I tend to immerse myself in the problem I am solving and easily pick up whatever techniques and knowledge that might aid in troubleshooting. I think this is because I have a problem solving mind and I enjoy finding out why things don’t work the way they are supposed to. My mind likes to understand how things work and fit together. Not all things mind you so I wouldn’t really call myself a geek, just things to do with computers. The weirder the problem is, the happier I am to take a stab at it! And my day is made if solving a problem also involves me picking up new stuff I didn’t know so far.

Now, in the context of my work life this is a very useful skill to have. I think it gives me an edge over my colleagues because I am like a hungry warrior. They might be stronger and bulkier than me (read: know more stuff than me because of experience) but they are not as hungry nor do they live for fixing stuff. As long as things work, they are happy to let it be. They don’t go about poking beneath it or ask questions to understand why things are so. Nor do they lose themselves in a problem and chase it down to its end. These are advantages I have over most people I have worked with, and I am happy about that.

But take these skills out of this context and they backfire. When my wife tells about a problem for instance, my mind goes on a tangent thinking how to fix the problem. I ask questions to try and understand the problem. I offer solutions – maybe crazy ones – to try and solve the problem. And if she gets put off by the questions or doesn’t like the solutions, I just move on because as far as I am concerned there’s nothing more for me to do. My mind lacks the emotional element that empathizes with her. It doesn’t understand that sometimes asking more questions isn’t the correct response to the situation. It is not willing to just listen to the problem without thinking of ways to solve it. And if the problem is something which I can’t find a solution for immediately – most “life problems” are that way – then my mind ends up ruminating over it as is my nature. That doesn’t work well for such problems; so rather than get bogged down it, a more practical part of my mind kicks in and tells me not to ruminate like this. That’s easier said than done, so over time I have developed a shield to such situations – if the problem’s fixable, I offer suggestions; if it’s not, or the other person doesn’t seem interested, I just don’t care about it. Which again doesn’t work out well in this context because now I give an impression of someone who doesn’t care! Not only am I a jerk now who can’t empathize and keeps asking questions, I am also someone who actively doesn’t care and blocks himself from the situation.

Context is everything!

These same skills and strategy however work well when it comes to work colleagues and users. When a colleague calls me up to talk about some work problem they don’t really want empathy or for me to care much. They want someone who listens and offers practical suggestions. They want someone who can offer a different point of view to the problem. They want zero emotional investment from you, just a listening box.

Had the above illumination when I was driving to work today, so thought I’d put it down before I forget …