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Problems, obstacles and opportunities: You choose

April 20, 2011

I am a problem solver. When encountering an issue that, on its face, looks like it might prevent progress I try to look at the circumstances from an objective view to the greatest extent possible. Viewing a problem from a mental aerial perspective sheds light on possible solutions that might not be visible when looking at the thing from a micro-view. Systematic issue identification becomes necessary so that “stuck” does not manifest into an outcome. As in any systematic analysis, a few pre-work items must be addressed:

  1. Disengage emotionally. It is easy to focus upon the frustration or anger associated with vested interests or myopic viewpoints when one earnestly wants to solve a problem while others appear to become human road blocks. When frustration or anger surface it is important to recognize the physiological responses to these emotions. The “fight or flight” response sends blood away from the brain through adrenaline and people become better equipped to run from saber-toothed tigers (as humans were originally designed to do back when survival depended upon such things) than to use their brains to creatively solve problems. Recognizing humans don’t need to run from saber-toothed tigers anymore, it is important to stop the physiological responses that can cloud judgement and focus upon thinking not running.
  2. “Just the facts ma’am.” Detective Sgt. Joe Friday from Dragnet had it right ( Understanding the facts of what has transpired is important to formulating solutions. What was said? Who said it? What was done? Who did it? These are just a few of the examples of the investigative questions that need to be asked prior to generating possible solutions. Objectivity, again, will keep inquiries from becoming bogged down by emotions. Understanding the circumstances from others’ perspectives fleshes out the mental aerial view of the problem and provides insight as to their points of view.
  3. What do they want? Understanding what all stakeholders in a problem are looking for provides clarity in terms of how others view the problem. This is powerful information and should not be immediately dismissed otherwise one is ill-equipped to manage expectations later.
  4. Motive. Understanding stakeholders’ motivations in terms of why they want what they want is critical. Uncovering how deeply invested one is in a particular outcome can be a transformational point in any situation. Are one (or more) of the parties committed to a particular outcome because of their position on the matter or does it come down to the need to save face or a power struggle? The why of the matter can be an enlightening element of problem-solving.
  5. Separate the people from the problem. Approaching any solution with neutrality instead of rampant panic is a recipe for a better outcome. Repeating the phrase “There is nothing personal going on here” can be facilitative, even if the situation really is ad hominem. Not surprisingly, humans can have a tough time separating the people from the problem (Fisher & Ury, 1991). Stepping back from the personal while approaching stakeholders with calm can reduce defensiveness that might be present. Is it realistic to think that defensiveness will be completely removed? Not always, however, lessening the effects of any defensive posture is one step toward consensus.
  6. BATNAs and WATNAs. In conflict theory we talk a great deal about BATNAs and WATNAs which are the “best alternatives to a negotiated agreement” and “worst alternatives to a negotiated agreement” (Fisher & Ury, 1991). Often the term “negotiated agreement” is utilized in a legal sense, indicating that if negotiations fail some sort of legal action will ensue. In everyday life, however, lawsuits may not be in the picture but the concepts of better outcomes vs. worst outcomes are.

The few steps outlined above consist of a beginning approach to problem solving where parties/stakeholders might have differing expectations. Often, many dynamics are present in situations involving problems which makes it even more important to see the event as an opportunity rather than an annoyance. It’s not easy; but with practice it becomes easier.

An extreme example

Imagine a toddler throwing a temper tantrum. She screams and stomps and throws things, wailing and crying; not listening to any amount of pleading, cajoling or threatening her parent, teacher or caregiver might be attempting to give. The adult in this situation has the choice of reacting angrily and, by proxy, becoming a player in the toddler’s drama. If they choose to go this route, they are now participating in the child’s temper tantrum and can no longer be useful in defusing the situation. However, if the adult chooses not to participate in the toddler’s temper tantrum and disengages by not rewarding the bad behavior with positive reinforcement (i.e.attention), the toddler sooner or later realizes her efforts are without payoff and will settle down. Making the choice to not participate can be very tough, especially in public situations. After removing the child from harm and/or public view, disengaging is the best choice. Everyone calms down and the adult can again approach the problem with a calmer, clearer view of how things can move forward.

Adults throw temper tantrums too. It happens all of the time. Other adults can and should choose to remain on an adult level and refrain from participating in someone’s temper tantrum, no matter how benign or grand. The same decelerating effects as in the toddler example apply if there is one party in the situation who can remember to be the adult. When better alternatives are systematically uncovered it is likely that zero-sum conflict (or some other form of destructive conflict) won’t be necessary. [There are caveats to this oversimplification, however, moving through the process by objectively identifying issues is indispensable.]

The bottom line, conflict theory aside, is that problems can be formidable and threatening. Problems can irreparably morph into insurmountable obstacles and the situation can appear to be quite dire. On the other hand, viewing problems as opportunities can be liberating and may take a bit of adjustment. From the opportunity point of view, there is at least the chance to move the problem to opportunity to positive outcome. The decision tree is challenging and the perspective chosen is a very individual one.

Somebody has to be the adult.


Fisher, R., and Ury, W. (1991). Getting to yes: Negotiating agreement without giving in. London: Penguin Books.

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