Teaching Kids to Be Empathetic Problem Solvers

Teaching Kids to Be Empathetic Problem Solvers

Respected and heard. Isn’t that what everyone wants — to be respected and heard?  

It seems simplistic. But, often, it’s not an easy thing to deliver. Especially when we’re called upon to solve someone else’s problem.

It’s hard to be empathetic. To understand, maybe even feel, what the other person is experiencing.

So how do you train yourself to be more empathetic? And, how do we teach this skill to our kids?

I happened upon an analogy the other day that I think can be helpful. It was in the book It Doesn’t Have to Be Crazy at Work, the latest work from Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson (aka, DHH).

For simplicity, let’s call it the “two tokens” analogy. While Fried and DHH explain it nicely, it’s actually something they learned from Jean-Louis Gassée, formerly of Apple.

Here’s how it works. When someone brings a problem to you, think about the transaction as having just two tokens. One token is, “It’s no big deal.” The other token is, “It’s the end of the world.” You have to take one token, leaving the other for the person with the problem.

Instinctively, you’ll want to take the “No big deal” token. To you, whatever the problem is, will probably seem like no big deal.  

Whether it’s a customer or a co-worker, they’re coming to you to solve the problem. Likely because you have the authority or expertise to fix whatever’s wrong.

So, truly, to you, the problem will seem like no big deal.

But, if you take the “No big deal” token, then you leave the “It’s the end of the world token” for the customer or co-worker.

Even if you solve the problem, the other person will be left feeling like their world was about to end, and you weren’t appropriately responsive.

So, let’s look at what happens if you, the problem solver, take the “It’s the end of the world” token? What if in your interaction with the customer or co-worker, you treated the problem as if it were as urgent as it must seem to them?

Then, the customer or co-worker is left with the “No big deal” token. Suddenly, making the problem seem smaller, fixable even.

By taking the “It’s the end of the world” token, in essence, you’re being empathetic. You’re acknowledging the sense of urgency that the customer or co-worker feels in that moment. You’re respecting them, hearing what they have to say. And, then applying your skill and expertise.

And, when you’ve done as much as you can do, even if the problem cannot immediately be solved, your empathy makes the problem seem a lot less urgent.

We all struggle, at times, with being empathetic. And, it might be because we don’t see the tokens as being different.

When we’re young and idealistic, we’re apt to see both tokens as “It's the end of the world.” However, taking ownership of others’ emotions, as we work to solve a problem, hinders us from doing our best work.

Conversely, as we age, we tend to see both tokens as “It’s no big deal.” We question why anyone would get worked up over anything. And, that cynicism, or lack of empathy, also hinders us from doing our best work.

Perhaps, that’s what I liked so much about the “two tokens” — that balance. It acknowledges the legitimacy of the feeling of urgency, while keeping the focus on solving the problem.

I also liked that it’s a simple analogy for teaching our kids how to be empathetic problem solvers. It’s a skill they’ll need to thrive in the Future of Work. As their world becomes more automated, it will be important for them to know how to solve problems, and to do so with empathy, a uniquely human trait. 

Robots and AI will be able to do a lot of work. But, they won’t likely be able to give everyone what they really want — to be respected and heard. And, that’s why there will always be work for humans, Empathetic humans, at least.

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