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From Susan David

Muskogee, Oklahoma

October 25, 2022

It is easy for most of us to jump into problem solving mode when we hear a problem. For some of us (me), it seems like that approach is hardwired in my brain.

Sometimes that approach is required -- when there is an urgency involved. But often it skips the emotions that people might be feeling.

I have been trying to hardwire curiosity into my brain so that I approach problem solving initially with questions as opposed to "I know how to solve this!" At First Tee, I learned it much more effective if you ask a youngster questions than just showing them how to fix something. "Why do you think you topped the ball? What change do you think might help?"

Those are the thoughts that this post from Susan David inspired in me:

Sawubona. I've written previously about my special affection for this greeting.

In South Africa, where I’m from, it’s the Zulu way of saying hello. The word itself is lovely, but it’s the meaning behind it that I find so powerful.

Literally translated, sawubona means, “I see you, and by seeing you, I bring you into being.”

Imagine being greeted like that every day—a bit more profound than your standard “good morning,” isn’t it? Sawubona validates. It lets the recipient know that they’re not just a roadblock on your trip to the coffee machine.

Rather, it makes them feel seen as an individual, and it recognizes the power of that seeing. It is our relationships with one another—our mutual acknowledgments—that “bring us into being.”

This is a moving sentiment, and one that’s all too easy to overlook. I certainly know that I don’t always approach others with such a generosity of spirit. Whether in my work with organizations or as a mother, I’m often predisposed to pursue solutions as efficiently as possible.

Has staff productivity declined over the past three quarters? Let’s find out why and make the necessary course corrections. Is my child suddenly dreading the school day? Let’s find a way to reconnect him with his education. Problems were meant to be solved, right?

Well, yes and no. Problem solving skills are necessary to both professional success and personal happiness, but sawubona reminds us to pause for a moment before leaping into action.

Ours is a culture that prioritizes concrete plans and well-devised strategies. But when someone is dealing with a problem, it’s just as important to make sure they feel that they’ve been seen and their feelings honored. Sawubona opens up a space for this experience of connection and recognition.

Oftentimes, this space can itself facilitate problem solving. Let’s think about that business with the declining productivity. If we were to jump straight into solutions mode, we might immediately look at workflows or project turnaround times—the nuts and bolts of the situation.

But a sawubona approach would start by offering employees a space to express their experiences and have them authentically heard. Perhaps the firing of a beloved colleague obliterated staff morale, and the leadership would do better to focus on reestablishing trust than on better project management software. This is the kind of truth that you’ll only discover if your team feels seen and heard.

Another important implication of sawubona is its recognition that not all problems are solvable. Maybe your child is dreading school because of a personality conflict with their teacher. Your kid craves order, and the teacher prefers a more freewheeling classroom environment.

Such temperamental and philosophical differences are difficult to reconcile, but by offering your little one the space to discuss their frustrations and to be reassured that their feelings make sense, they might find that some of the edge has been taken off of their resentment. Not every new difficulty can or should be directly acted upon, and sawubona can make these issues easier to live with.

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