Once I was covering the phones on a Sunday at an instructional technology help desk. I got a call.
“I have a problem,” said the person on the other end, and he began to describe his experience. It was a basic problem, and I knew before he even said three words how to fix it.
The person was talking a lot more than was necessary, but who doesn’t do that? What are we to do, talk to each other in beeps like R2D2? I waited patiently. When he gave me a place to talk, I told him in the most direct way I could how to fix the problem. “You just need to click the button at the bottom of the screen,” said I. (Or something equally simple).
There was a pause, and he said, “but I had this problem.” And he told his story again. As he was talking I reflected. Is he describing to me again the very problem we just solved, and even using the very same words? He was indeed. Had he not heard the solution? Apparently he had not. Maybe I hadn’t been clear? Or maybe I had been too pithy! Maybe I needed a little more narrative, I thought. A little more humanity. So when I was given a space in which to talk, which took a while, I took another approach.
“I think I understand your problem. I’ve had it myself! The design of the interface is lousy. These software designers today, oy! Feels like you ought to have a drop-down menu at the top. But when you roll around up there with the mouse, nothing to be seen. You could be rolling around there forever and get nothing. And when you don’t see what you want, you feel lost. And you wonder, ‘What am I to do?’ And nobody wants to ask that question. Happily, there is something you can do–a button on the bottom of the page! If you click on it, your problem will be fixed! I know, I didn’t believe it at first, either! Don’t ask me why or how, but that’s where it is. And you can use that little button as many times as you want and it just fixes, fixes, fixes. And you’ll never have the problem again! And after a while you get used to the button, and your hand mechanically clicks it, and you forget you ever had the problem in the first place. And the ripple fades and the surface of the pond is smooth.” (Or something like that).
And then there was another pause. And he said “but I had this problem,” and he described the problem for a third time.
Then as I sat listening to the problem again, I reflected more. Or more accurately, something happened in my brain similar to the famous heart-growth moment of the Grinch. “He doesn’t want the problem fixed,” I thought. “Is that possible? Then what does he want? Why did he call? What can I even do? What can I say? What is the purpose of this conversation? Who is this person? Who am I? Why are we on the planet together?” Etc. And a thought did eventually come to me. So when I had the chance to talk again, I tried another approach still.
“That is frustrating,” I said.
“Yeah,” he answered, with a sigh. “Yeah.” Then there was a pause. “Thanks,” he said, and hung up.