If I Had a Hammer

If I Had a Hammer

I have a theory that is probably not my theory nor in any way original to me, but it is something that I observe quite a lot. I call it defaulting to competencies. What I mean by this is that most people under duress or stress will gravitate toward what they feel they do well. Some people feel competent at work and so when faced by something that makes them feel overwhelmed or truly challenged, they tend to do one of two things. First, they might spend more time at work where they are not as likely to be exposed. The other common move is that whatever skill they feel they have at work, they will try to apply that skill to whatever problem they are facing, say, at home.

If they do a good job of seeing the big picture and getting people where they work most efficiently even without explaining their thinking, that is what they try to do at home, even if the problem at home is not fundamentally a logistical or organizational problem. Or take someone like me who fancies themselves as empathetic and good at listening, and that is what I try to employ even if the problem at home or wherever really needs me to just choose and act. Others, say teachers, who spend their days helping students understand the problems so they can solve them on their own might work and work to explain to the other person at home what the problem really is and what that other person seems to be consistently missing.

Further, it is often hard for the person to accept that their default process is not always the best because through their lens, it seems so clear. Is that because the lens clarifies everything or does that mean the lens of their competency makes everything look like that sort of problem? Someone the other day reminded me of a saying that describes this idea most succinctly. This person said that “to a hammer, all problems look like nails.”

I love that image and it sums me and so many people up so well. We have our own lens or perspectives or competencies or whatever you want to call them through which we run almost everything without really thinking. Then we apply the principles of our competency and “hammer away” at problems, many of which are not really nails. That precludes us taking into account other at least equally valid perspectives and others who are working just as hard as we are to employ what they are comfortable with even if it is not the same as us. This can be at the core of primary miscommunication and ineffective problem solving in all sorts of relationships.

This leads back to a couple of other common themes in my blogs. One is developing the ability to adapt the process to the situation rather than forcing the situation into the process. In short, use the proper tool for the job even if it means having to learn how to us it. The other theme is to put real effort into hearing and truly validating the other’s perspective and not in a condescending way but with respect and generosity. If you do that and they do too, then together you have your best chance of actually selecting and applying the most effective tool for the task.