How to Diagnose Before We Prescribe

We are always quick to give unsolicited advice/feedback to others. Why do we feel qualified in giving advice without even hearing what the other person has to say when we have not even taken the time to listen and understand their situation? Why do we feel the need to add our two cents to every discussion? Why do we project our paradigms/beliefs onto others’ problems without understanding their frame of reference?

We speak more than we listen to others. We communicate ineffectively with others in that we listen prematurely. We are always speaking or preparing to speak. We listen with the intent to reply (not to understand). When others are talking out of emotion, we talk logically. We are so focused on making ourselves heard and understood that we fail to listen to others (let alone understand them).

What happens when others find us constantly doing this? It creates distrust and causes them to share their ideas less in the future because they have learned from past experience that we don’t listen and we just want to speak without listening to them and what they have to say. Other times, we may pretend to listen, but aren’t actually listening.

We get so fixated on solving others’ problems that we don’t even listen to them, let alone them saying that there is something to be solved. Because we don’t listen, we end up losing sight of the right problems and end up solving the wrong ones. In doing all of these, we forget that we are violating a fundamental principle: we need to diagnose before we can prescribe. This might sound obvious to you, but I bet many of us make this mistake in our everyday lives.

This principle manifests itself in many areas of life, and it certainly is the mark of true professionals. For instance, doctors cannot prescribe until they have listened to (and understood) their patient’s health issues. A common misperception is that the doctors need to be objective in diagnosing the health issues of their patients (which is not entirely true); they wrongly think that being empathetic with them could potentially compromise their diagnosis. Being empathetic is one thing, being emotional and sentimental is quite another. I am suggesting they do the former, not the latter.

As a management consultant, I listen to my clients to understand their needs, their challenges in the workplace, the problems they are trying to solve, etc. before I can even begin to understand their problem domain (let alone suggest how my approaches would work for them). Furthermore, my value added is the gap between what they (think they) want and what they actually need.

The same is true in generic sales situations. Unless you understand what your customer needs (not wants), their concerns, and their situation, you can’t even begin to recommend solutions to them. The best sales people always understand their customers first. Only when they have understood, and if they have the right solutions for them, can they begin to prescribe them. In fact, often the best salesmen are those who are not afraid to shy away from their customers because they don’t have the solution to their problem. Instead, they might suggest someone else who might be able to better cater to their needs.

Take the case of a lawyer. Their job is to not only understand the case they have taken for their client, but also to understand it better than their opposing counsel. That would include anticipating (and understanding) the opposing counsel’s argument better than them and preparing for it.

If you’re a designer responsible for creating (and shipping) a product, you have to understand the problem domain area, understand the context of the problem, and identify the stakeholders before you can even begin to define a problem (let alone solve it).

Examples of this principle abound, and are omnipresent. It could be a professor assessing a class before teaching, or a student understanding something before applying it, or a parent understanding their kids before evaluating or judging them.

In all of these examples, you’ll observe that solving the problems/challenges is not necessarily the hard part. The hard part is often defining the right ones to work on. I am reminded of an old quote that I think suits this context, and which I paraphrase — if you have an hour, spend 50 minutes defining the problem, then 10 minutes solving it.

Helping others solve their problems/challenges requires understanding them first. Understanding others requires us to listen to them empathically, which is about understanding others not just intellectually, but also emotionally. We have to use both sides of our brain to communicate effectively. That means not just paying attention to the words being said, but also (and more importantly) listening to the emotions behind the words.

You see, words are not enough. In fact, the tone and body language play a much bigger part in communication. We need to make them feel understood without agreeing/disagreeing with them. Only when others feel that we’ve understood them can we begin to “prescribe” (at their discretion). Even then, the conversation has to be logically driven by the other person.

We need to learn when to listen empathically and understand when to give counsel or advice. As long as there is emotion in the conversation, one has to listen with empathy. But as soon as the conversation turns logical, i.e. the other person is asking you some kind of question to help them think through (or to solve it), that’s when you can advise or counsel them (if appropriate). A common mistake that we make is to ask logical questions when the conversation is driven by emotions and sentiments, but we fail to understand that all logic fails in front of emotion, which is just too powerful. Besides, when others are emotionally engaged in a conversation, they are not in a state to listen to you, so logic (or otherwise) will fail.

We have to understand others from their frame of reference. We can’t simply dispense advice from our own paradigms/beliefs. Don’t give arbitrary advice based on your own situations in the past, which, even if similar, chances are that what worked for you might not work for the person you’re advising. This is not a one-size-fits-all kind of thing. We have to step into their shoes to understand their situation and the circumstances surrounding it, without making assumptions or taking anything for granted.

In terms of interpersonal communication with a loved one, chances are simply listening to them, understanding what they have to say, and acting as a sound board for their ideas helps them listen to themselves (which is often what they need) and helps them think through their issues more comprehensively than they would have done on their own. More often than not, you’ll end up not advising them because they were able to think through and come up with their solutions. But, your role (as an effective listener) was vital in terms of facilitating that process.

It’s only when we understand others, their unique situations, and concerns that we can even begin to counsel or advise them. More often than not, they will come up with their own solutions and you’re only a facilitator in the process. That said, only when you’re being asked for advice can you begin to share your views on their situation. It’s only when we are confident about our own diagnosis that we can be confident about our prescription. Only when we can help others diagnose a problem/challenge correctly do they have any chance of solving it.

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