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What's your problem? (And how to solve it!)

emotional wellbeing personal growth perspective Apr 18, 2022

The other day, I was talking to a friend of mine about team dynamics and she was bemoaning the fact that managers and supervisors are supposed to be "effective problem solvers", but that so many people are never taught how to do it. And that people are, often, not given the training resources to learn that skill (*cough* hire me *cough*). The conversation then moved to how this is true in our private lives, as well. We are conditioned to get the right answer (and there is only one!), and follow protocol, and not question authority, and do what we've always done. It is extraordinary [outside the ordinary] when we are encouraged to think outside the box, recognize there may be many right answers, and that the status quo may be part of the problem!

As much as I cringe over the saying, "There are no problems, only opportunities!", I do believe there is some truth to it. So, here is my take on problem-solving, at home, at work, and in our communities.

Part 1: Is the correct problem being identified? How often is a problem identified, a solution applied, and success occurs...for a short period of time? If a problem (or similar ones) keep cropping up, then the problem is not being correctly identified. So often, solutions are merely bandages that provide temporary relief but do next to nothing for the underlying issue. Fixing a superficial problem is fine in a crisis situation, but for true resolution, the core must be addressed. This is why I love the 5 Why's technique: keep asking "why" until there are no more answers; the last answer is your core problem. I gave an example of this in my last post. When that core problem is addressed and resolved, all the subsequent stuff resolves, as well. HINT: when dealing with other human beings, the core problem is usually emotional (i.e. feeling that needs are not being met).

Part 2: Is the problem being acknowledged? This is important in two ways. The first is our own built-in sense of denial. It is stronger in some of us than others (I consider it one of my superpowers). How often do we deny that there is even a problem? And that problem is going to take time, energy, and vulnerability to fix? How often do we pick a temporary solution because it is the easier, softer way? Real problems do not go away on their own. If we choose to deny the problem, we cause it to become bigger and, often, more complicated.

The second reason acknowledging a problem is so important is: how often do we, as human beings, minimize, discredit, or ignore the problems of others? We have a tendency to disagree when others identify a problem based on their experience if it does not match our experience. For example, I had a suite-mate in college that cried for the first couple of days of our freshman year because she missed her dog so much. Her dog. Really?! The thing was...I never had a dog, she had had this dog since she was 2 or 3, her dog was sick and would probably not make it until winter break, and was a really awesome pup! Her sadness and grief were completely legitimate. But, because of my experience, I did not perceive it that way. I just thought she was overly sensitive. Needless to say, I wasn't very sympathetic in word or deed. It wasn't until many years later when I had to put my own sweet doggie to sleep did I really begin to "get" it. How often do we not "get" it when someone else has a problem that does not match our experience? For example, the coworker who loses it when the supervisor makes a small change to the schedule (because she is a single mom and now doesn't have any way to pick up her child from daycare before it closes.) Or how about when a three-year-old is not allowed to wear her favorite shirt for the 11th day in a row and she becomes a raving maniac (because, developmentally, she is beginning to learn that she has control over her environment and her clothing choices are her main way of communicating her independence.)

In the bigger picture, this discounting of other people's problems as not true, not important, or not credible is an enormous source of disconnect and conflict. Just look at Black Lives Matter, Make America Great Again, Women's Rights are Human Rights, Water is Life, or any of the other hundreds of different perspectives that trigger very heated interactions. Core to these issues is that there is a disagreement of the problem based on personal experience. As a white woman, my experiences are not going to match those of women of color. We may have a lot in common, but we will always have lives that are impacted differently due to the color of our skin. Similarly, a man who has never had to be hypervigilant while walking alone at night, or in a parking garage, or sitting next to a stranger while on public transportation, does not have the experiential knowledge of what it is live female.

The fix to this is to learn to acknowledge that if someone else identifies that there is an issue or problem, accept that there is a problem. Discounting someone else's perspective will never, ever be a solution. Now, I know some of you are thinking, "But what if that other person is wrong?" The thing is...they can't be wrong about their perspective! If a person is having an emotional reaction to something, that reaction is true, valid, and important. That person may be incorrect about the data, or be misinterpreting the situation, or in denial (all of which may be addressed as part of the solution), but when we argue with someone else over the validity of their experiential perspective, we are not addressing the problem: we are invalidating that person.

Which leads me to Part 3 which is being accountable. The simple thing is: if we are part of a problem, we get to be part of the solution. This is not to say that just because someone else does not like me, my behavior, or my decisions, that I must change me, my behavior, or my decision. That is not what accountability means and is not healthy or productive. What is means is acknowledging the fact that in every interaction of which we are a part, we influence that interaction. We can either add a solution-focused influence or a problem-focused one. If I recognize that I am part of the problem (maybe through no fault of my own), I get to work toward the solution. If I recognize that I don't understand the problem (including why it is an issue for the other person), I get to try to understand and work toward the solution with the other person's feedback.

This change in perspective means that problem-solving is naturally collaborative, growth-focused, and based on developing healthy relational interactions. How cool is that!

Let me know what you think!

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