How often do you offer what others need?

Today is January 7 and the Navigate the Chaos question to consider is “How often do you offer what others need?” Navigating the chaos and practicing the art of living well will often involve helping others in one way or another. Today’s reflection involves spending a few moments to assess your relationship with others. In How Will You Measure Your Life, Clayton Christensen shares the story of a fast-food restaurant chain that hired Christensen’s research company to understand why 40 percent of milkshakes were purchased in the morning. Interviews with customers who purchased a morning milkshake revealed that they had a long commute to work.

The milkshake was easy to drink in the car, filled them until lunch and was enjoyable to drink. The researchers concluded that customers hired the milkshake to do a very specific job. The customers faced a long, boring commute, had one free hand, and needed something to stave off hunger until noon. The milkshake was hired in lieu of a bagel or doughnut because it was relatively tidy and appetite-quenching, and because trying to suck a thick liquid through a thin straw gave customers something to do with their boring commute.

To improve customer satisfaction the “company created a morning milkshake that was even thicker (to last through a long commute) and more interesting (with chunks of fruit) than its predecessor.” The chain also created a different milkshake more appealing to parents who wanted to provide a special treat for their children. This milkshake, unlike the morning version, was easier for young children to drink. We can apply the same lessons to our relationships.

The milkshake story helps us understand that people in our life need certain things and it is our job to figure out what they need. We can do this by listening, placing aside our own needs, and making ourselves available for those in our life. All too often we think our approach is helpful but what would better serve our relationship is asking the other person "what do you need?" The next time you are talking to someone ask yourself what they need. Might be that you are offering a bagel but what they really want is a milkshake! As Robert Ingersoll noted “We rise by lifting others.” One way to do that is to ask yourself the question ‘am I offering others what they need?”

In their 2019 book, Helping People Change: Coaching with Compassion for Lifelong Learning and Growth, Drs. Richard Boyatzis, Melvin Smith, and Ellen Van Oosten tell the story of a young high-school soccer player. Since everyone in her family played soccer she naturally gravitated to the sport. One day her high school coach asked her “Why do you play soccer?” The young woman was puzzled by the question and said, “Because everyone in my family plays soccer. And because I am good at it.” Then the coach asked, “But do you love it?”

Somewhat dejectedly, she said, “No, I don’t…It was fun when I was younger, but now it feels like something I have to do…I don’t want to let my family down.” Her coach had noticed something else in her behavior and asked her about it. This resulted in a revelation for both her and her coach. She loved running, but no longer felt the same about soccer. So, she changed sports and become a phenomenal long-distance runner. Of course, this came at the expense of the soccer coach who lost a player but that is an important element of today’s reflection.

The easy thing for the soccer coach to have done was to go on playing the young woman. The hard thing to do in this situation was for the coach to ask his player what she wanted. The coach could have assumed he was giving his player adequate playing time but that is not what she wanted. The only way he discovered what she wanted was by asking. If you are managing people how often do you ask what they want? Do you assume they are happy and have what they need to succeed in life? The research suggests that asking someone if they have what they need can help them navigate the chaos and practice the art of living well.

For example, in their November 6, 2019 Psychology Today article Drs. Boyatzis, Smith, and Van Oosten commented on the frequency of this dynamic where a coach has the real opportunity to offer support to someone and see them as they should be; not as they currently are. “It is so much easier to subtly (or not so subtly) tell someone what they should do than to take the risk and time to understand what they really want. If you are trying to encourage learning or change in another person, a coaching mindset will really help discover what the person has energy, commitment, and desire to do!”

How often are you putting in the work to understand those around you? How often are you offering what others need?