I’ve always enjoyed problem solving. It’s surely one of life’s most important skills. However, I’ve often felt blocked by others when I set out to solve a problem that includes someone else, and this brief piece by Seth Godin may have just helped me see why.
Godin makes a distinction between a problem (implying a solution(s)) and a situation, something outside our power to change.
He points out the first step in solving a problem is to agree a problem exists.
I learned as a child to be deeply self-reliant and as independent as possible. More often than not, asking for help or understanding made whatever situation I was struggling with much, much worse. So I learned not to. I don’t deny problems to myself, but I don’t share them readily, either. Being honest about what’s not working makes us vulnerable. It means we have to come out of hiding. It’s risky. I don’t want to be that direct and clear about my experience, because it feels disempowering and dangerous.
Learning curves are messy, and as I’ve worked on being more connected with others, I’ve gradually risked sharing problems involving others.
Sometimes I’ve received support and understanding, along with good advice and questions to help me better define whatever I’m dealing with.
I’ve never started with an objective discussion in which I clearly state the nature of my problem and ask for another point of view. Is it a problem for anyone else in the picture, or is it a situation? Do others involved feel it’s a problem worth solving? Can we agree to move forward together to seek a solution, even if there’s no easy or certain one right now?
I leap directly to problem solving before I’ve had any agreement that anyone else experiences a problem. I change my behavior, come up with strategies, and start tackling the problem. When my problem-solving strategies cause friction with others, I’m hurt and angry. This is a problem, right? I’m trying to solve my problem. I’m not asking you to solve it, I’m solving it. Why can’t you let me take care of my needs?
It would work if we all lived in bubbles instead of a web of interconnection, but inevitably, if I change my behavior, those connected to me are affected. And we don’t like it when people rock our boats, especially if we don’t believe in the problem they’re trying to manage.
Photo by Ashkan Forouzani on Unsplash
Like, say, coping with a global health crisis. The last three years have been a marvelous illustration of what happens when people disagree about problems and solutions (or at least mitigations). Chaos. Undermining. Disinformation. Division. Even violence.
When we can’t find validation for our feeling of urgency around a problem, then what?
I can’t answer for anyone else, but I set out to ease or solve the problem with solutions I have the power to implement. Sometimes they’re small tweaks. Sometimes they’re extreme, scorched-earth, desperate choices because I saw no other way.
Sometimes my problem is someone else’s convenience, pleasure, or deliberate choice.
Sometimes, and this is worth mentioning loudly, I tackle problems not belonging to me. I do it out of good intentions, with a desire to strengthen connection, but it rarely works out well. The problems of others are not mine to solve. It’s hard for me to understand mild bitching is not a plea for assistance in solving a problem. This is an area in which I continue to work on healthy boundaries.
Refusing to help, stalling, or obstructing problem-solving doesn’t stop me from going forward with solutions to my own challenges. It simply sends me underground, which is where I work most comfortably anyway.
Another block to solving problems: The Status Quo. Good old SQ.
If, and it’s a big if, we can agree on the problem, the SQ will immediately spring to life and block every attempt to make different choices. The SQ is comfortable. It knows what to expect. It understands how current systems and dynamics work. If something changes, the problem might become worse. It might multiply into several other problems. Change is hard. It might cost too much money. We don’t have time and energy for it right now. We’re not focused. We’ll forget. We’re too distracted. It’s not that big a problem, after all. In fact, why are you making such a fuss over nothing? Are you tired? Or sick? Or about to get your period? Are you in menopause? Are you having a bad day, sweetheart? Why don’t you relax and have a drink? Or a pint of ice cream? Or a pill? Or a cigarette? You’ll feel better then.
Don’t you think you’re being a little dramatic?
The SQ, you see, doesn’t want to lose any power, especially power it stole from others on the way to becoming the SQ. If you solve your problem, the SQ might lose ground. Not acceptable. You wouldn’t want to solve your problem at the expense of the SQ, would you?
I’ve written before about Bill Eddy’s work on high-conflict personalities. One of his strategies is to ask people who are dissatisfied or actively complaining for a plan. This acknowledges the perceived problem, invites ideas about solving it, and helps the high-conflict person feel heard and validated. It also asks them to take responsibility for changing the situation in such a way that a refusal is obvious and public. It forces active contribution rather than passive trouble-making. Are they complaining as a habit, or are they serious about creating a better way to do things?
Image by Valeria Lo Iacono from Pixabay
I’ve tried this, and in real life some people will simply shrug and say, “I dunno.” They have no plan. They have no interest in a plan. I don’t know if they don’t see a problem needing a solution, or they’re lazy, or simply deeply invested in complaining and don’t want to lose the source of their complaint. For whatever reason, they stonewall the process of problem solving.
Some folks will respond to a request for a plan. Often, people do have ideas about what might work better, what might be worth trying, or are interested in coming up with a new system. They only want an invitation.
A third response is the most problematic. These are the people who refuse to be clear. They won’t admit there is a problem, but there might be. They won’t admit it needs to be, might be, or could be solved. They won’t take any responsibility for the problem, even if they’re an involved stakeholder. They refuse to consider solutions and possible outcomes. They stall, obstruct, and speak for the status quo.
They don’t openly refuse to cooperate, but their noncooperation makes the message clear: It’s not who I am. I won’t remember. It’s silly. It’s too much trouble. It’s inconvenient. I’m not doing that!
I’ve drawn a new map for problem solving:
Define the problem. Be sure it belongs to me.
Seek agreement on the defined problem from others directly involved with or affected by it.
Ask everyone involved (including myself) for a plan. Consider each plan. Think about why, how and if it might or might not work. Come up with possible outcomes, positive and negative, for each plan.
Choose a plan, or to delay, or redefine the problem as a situation, at least for now.
I can’t help feeling it’s far easier to just solve problems on my own. Seriously.
On the other hand, I’m not alone in my house, my workplace, my community, or my life. Probably a good thing. Problems are inevitable, and solving them can be a team sport.
This week I’m moving on with a holistic business writing plan, based on Allan Savory’s Holistic Management. See the first posts here and here.
Whatever our situation, if we want to change it, we need a map from the place we are now to where we want to be at some future point in time. What this means is we have to move beyond our unhappiness with the way things are now and think about how we’d like them to become.
This point in the process requires a further commitment. We’ve all spent time spinning our wheels and feeling stuck. When I do that, I’m sucking the juice out of my grievances and resentments instead of letting go of the rind and moving forward. Eventually, I get bored with myself, stop focusing on the fact that I don’t like how my life is working, and think about what would work better.
It seems easy, but getting unstuck requires more effort and courage than staying stuck. Stuck is familiar. Getting unstuck means … who knows? Maybe we’ll fail. Maybe things will be required of us that we don’t think we can deliver. Maybe we’ll wind up in an even deeper, muddier, icier ditch than we’re in now. Maybe we resist dreaming (my hand is raised). Maybe we’re quite sure we were born to be stuck, and we’ll betray our family or tribe if we dare to do better than they told us we could.
I have all kinds of reasons for staying stuck. Some I’m conscious of, and some I probably haven’t identified yet. They’re still lurking under the bed somewhere.
We might decide we don’t want to change things, after all, at least not using this model. It’s too much work. It’s too overwhelming. We can’t see the point in all these “holistic” complications. Taking on life in neat little reductionistic pieces is a lot easier. We don’t want to think about this stuff or ask ourselves hard questions.
I, however, am determined to continue, so my next step is to think about defining my holistic context with a statement of purpose, what quality of life I want, and how I intend my future resource base to look.
A statement of purpose is just that, one statement exactly describing our goal. Obviously, this requires some forward thinking, as opposed to sulking about our present undesirable circumstances.
(I’m reminded of a saying I once heard: If you’re in hell, don’t stop!)
It’s easy to obsess over what’s not working. We’ve probably been doing it for a long time. Thinking about what would work better is kind of a refreshing change, for me, anyway. Coming up with a one-sentence statement of purpose sounds easy, but that’s deceptive. I began with one word: security. I want to build some security for my future.
Great, but what does that mean, exactly? Security is pretty vague. I thought about it, journaled, made notes and lists, and gradually shaped a statement of purpose that felt true.
With that out of the way, I turned to thinking about what quality of life means to me. It means security, to begin with. This feels like a good sign – harmony between my statement of purpose and the quality of life I want to achieve.
At this point, I can mine my grievances for information. I’d like a roof that doesn’t leak. Check. I’d like a house that isn’t slowly tilting on its cracked foundation, mouseless cupboards, a better floorplan, a lot less stuff. Check, check, check and check.
Of course, I want to be able to afford a more secure place to live. Financial security. I also want to shape a sustainable life, which means investing in less gas and oil (heating fuel) dependency and having a more energy-efficient home, among other things.
Quality of life, however, depends on more than our housing situation. This is a holistic plan; we must look at a wider picture than we’re used to. I need healthy relationships for quality of life. I need to be able to make a meaningful (to me) contribution to others. I need to be creative. I want to be physically, emotionally, and mentally healthy. I need privacy and quiet in which to recharge and write.
I made lots of lists, allowing myself to fantasize without worrying about what I deserve, whether I can afford, and all the rest. The result is a final list of what quality of life means to me, and what I mean by a sustainable life.
Lastly, and this is one of the unique aspects of this framework, is defining what we want our future resource base to look like. We must consider possible present actions through the filter of the future.
For example, if we want to clear land of unwanted plants (called weeds) in order to make a garden, one option is to douse it with weed killer. That might or might not destroy all the weeds in the short term, but it certainly degrades the soil, which will need intensive rehab and reclamation to become healthy and productive again. We’ve just killed our garden.
I’m not managing a ranch or farm, but thinking about the future still applies to me. If I want a future financial resource base that’s healthy and gives me financial security, taking out a big loan to fix our roof is a foolish choice. Not only does it further destabilize my present inadequate financial resources, it locks me into future debt. Fixing the roof would keep the water out, but the rest of the house is no longer sustainable in the long term. Much better to find another way to achieve and invest in a more sustainable housing situation.
Thinking about how the decisions we make now affect the future is one of the biggest weaknesses in how we plan, individually and as businesses. We’re impulsive, we’re impatient, and we’re more concerned with our present challenges and problems and our bottom line than we are with whatever might happen in the future. We clear cut part of our land to pay bills. We poison our dandelions because the neighbors object to them. We pick up leaves in the fall so our yards look neater. All those actions ripple into the future in destructive and unexpected ways, but we rarely stop to weigh the possible or probable consequences.
We’re in permanent reactive mode rather than being proactive and taking time to plan holistically. We set ourselves up for one unexpected problem after another, one unforeseen consequence after another. Our plans and policies fail, and we’re not sure why and don’t know how to fix them.
These two first steps, defining the whole we want to manage and defining the holistic context, present and future, force us to clarify and focus not only on the problem, but on the tapestry into which the problem is woven. We are not leaping to a solution for a problem we’ve only glimpsed from the corner of our eye.
In other words, we allow ourselves time to correctly define our problem.
This process also gives us a chance to make observations, identify resources, and gather information, which can redefine or erase perceived problems. If we have the good fortune to be responsible for a piece of land, raking, digging, tilling, removing rotting wood, using herbicides and fertilizers, and limiting diversity of plants and insects are not only unnecessarily expensive, they’re actions that will impoverish and degrade our future resource base.
This is what I learned as I struggled with my health. My problem wasn’t autoimmune disease. My problem was my diet. When I fixed that, the autoimmune symptoms disappeared.
Working to define a holistic context as part of management doesn’t satisfy my desire to find and implement a solution NOW. Even as I resent the time I’m giving this process, though, I’m conscious that this is a more complete way to problem solve, a more thoughtful way, a more intelligent way. So I’m holding my horses and taking a step at a time, fascinated, in spite of my impatience, by the elegance of managing my life and goals with this new tool.
As I begin to implement my holistic management writing business plan this week, I notice that taking the very first step – defining the whole I want to manage – naturally leads me to action. It turns out I don’t have to make lists of priorities. Using the model itself dictates the natural, logical, next effort.
Unfortunately, the natural, logical, next efforts are precisely the ones I was hoping to avoid ever having to deal with!
I wrote recently about solutions sometimes becoming a bigger problem than the problem itself, mostly because we don’t take the time to fully understand what caused the problem and focus on solving that. It’s easier and quicker to slap a Band-Aid on symptoms of the problem and move on as fast as we can.
Defining the whole has led me directly to some of the ways I’m self-sabotaging and obstructing my own progress. It doesn’t seem like wrestling with such uncomfortable issues is forwarding my plan, but I recognize there’s no point in creating a plan if I’m not going to fully commit to it.
As I consider resources, I mentioned last week that I listed numerous human resources in my life and called it good. It wasn’t until some time later that I realized I hadn’t listed myself. I am right in the center of the whole I want to manage.
I still don’t naturally think of myself or my work (of any kind) as having value. It takes an effort of will to think outside my old frame. I can do it, but it’s not my default.
I’ve struggled with my sense of self-worth all my life, so my discomfort around recognizing myself as my most important resource it is not news. Doing so provides another (unwelcome) opportunity to realize how powerfully my lack of self-worth undermines my dreams and desires.
I don’t want the opportunity. I want to make a plan, implement it, and move forward, and I want to do it quickly and cleanly.
But I can’t. My thoughts and feelings around making a living creatively, successfully contributing my writing, and shaping the kind of future I want are at the heart of my management plan. Pretending they’re not there won’t work, and neither will speeding past them.
The other thing I notice about working with my resource list is that I’m not making the most of my technological resource in the shape of this blog. This is also not a news flash. I have for some time felt an increasing tension to begin monetizing the blog in small ways.
One option for monetizing blogs, of course, is advertising.
Here’s more discomfort I’d really like to avoid by just not going there.
I absolutely hate advertising. I hate it so much I won’t watch commercial TV.
On the other hand, I spend a lot of hours online, and nearly everything I read is monetized and has ads. Some are more obnoxious than others, but generally I ignore them as best I can and work around them.
The fact is that I might be earning a few dollars with this blog if I chose to research and implement some options. I’ve known that since I started, but I’ve resisted facing my discomfort around taking definitive action. That resistance is all about me, not learning curves, financial investment, time, or the difficulties of life in general (like I’m just too busy).
In defining the whole, I’ve deliberately looked at every single resource I can come up with and asked myself if I’m making the most of it. Certainly, I’m not making the most of myself if I’m holding myself back or keeping myself small. Likewise, I could be adding to the value of the blog. I don’t have to, but I could. So if I choose not to, what is that about? I can’t want to manage the whole in order to go forward while refusing to manage the largest part of the whole – myself.
Working with Savory’s holistic management template gives me exactly what I need to slow down and take a logical step at a time, no matter how small, while continuing to create content. I don’t feel overwhelmed when I look at only the next step, and I don’t have to search for it. It falls naturally into place as I begin to shape my plan.
I’m uncomfortable, but I’m also amused. It’s so easy to get validated in this culture for all our intractable problems. Who doesn’t understand feeling limited by money, the feeling that we don’t have the time or energy to do what we really want to do, or how disempowered one can feel by simply getting by for another day?
Yet each of us are central to our own problems, and refusing to address the ways we hold ourselves back guarantees inadequate and ineffective problem solving when we seek to manage, plan, or achieve a goal. We are an inescapable part of the whole. In fact, we are the only ones with the power to address the very core of our individual problems.
I began this project of planning for the future I want economically and otherwise with resentful feelings about all the ways in which others and the world refuse to meet my needs. I started reading Holistic Management by Allan Savory and did a lot of journaling. Within a couple of days I remembered again what I’ve discovered over and over before.
I recently read an article from The Minimalists about problems and solutions. The first time I skimmed through it, I thought, “Huh?” and saved it for more concentrated exploration later. It was one of those pieces of inside-out thinking that stuck in my head, like a small rock in one’s shoe, and I puzzled over it for a few days, until I went back and read it with more attention.
I laughed when I reread, because it’s a short and simple piece, but it suggests an unaccustomed way of thinking about problems, especially to someone as goal-oriented and problem-solving as I am.
The idea is that solutions, the magic bullets everyone wants, take our attention away from problems and often compound them. The solution becomes more of a problem than the problem was in the first place.
This phenomenon is familiar enough to us that we made a saying about the cure being worse than the disease. I just never thought past the context of cures and disease before now.
When it comes to solving problems, especially in a consumer culture, toxic mimics are ubiquitous. We’re also in a hurry. We don’t like discomfort. We want a quick, palatable fix, and we want it now. This means we throw solutions at problems without taking the time to understand their full extent and complexity. We feel entitled to instant gratification, and that’s what advertisers promise us.
In the last few cold, dark days of 2020, as most of us look ahead and hope for better things in 2021, it’s a good time to pause and spend time with our problems.
Seriously! They’re with us anyway. We might as well give them some real attention. If we’ve tried and tried to solve a particular problem and gotten nowhere, or made it worse, maybe it’s time to go deeper into it, putting possible solutions aside for a while and just being with the problem. Rainer Maria Rilke wrote about loving and living with the questions before living into the answers.
In a lovely demonstration of synchronicity, as I work on this post I’m also reading Holistic Management by Allan Savory. It’s essentially a book about restoring the environment, based on a lifetime of study, experience and success in reversing desertification and building healthy land, but it’s also a framework for decision-making and management of any context, from a household to a community to a business organization.
Defining and understanding as much of the problem as possible is key to managing anything holistically. The metaphor Savory uses is taking aspirin to relieve a headache brought on by someone hitting us in the head with a hammer. Taking an aspirin is quick and cheap, but the real problem is not the headache, it’s the fact that someone is hitting us in the head with a hammer! Taking aspirin does not address the real problem.
This is a simple metaphor, but it’s surprising how often we respond in just this way to the symptoms of problems rather than excavating the root causes and addressing those, which often involves time, patience, learning new information and creating entirely different ways of responding and utilizing resources.
Perhaps this year we could make a different kind of New Year’s Resolution list.
If we have financial problems, instead of trying to figure out how to make more money, we could investigate our relationship with money.
If we have weight problems, instead of trying a diet, we could explore our relationship with food.
If we don’t get enough exercise, instead of buying an expensive piece of home equipment (which I hear make great laundry racks and/or clothing storage), we could take a look at our ability to keep our word to ourselves and our willingness (or not) to self-care.
If we feel disorganized and overwhelmed with our stuff, instead of buying storage space, organizing systems, or looking for a bigger house, we could simplify our lives and shed some stuff.
If we’re lonely and searching for romance, instead of spending time and money on dating platforms, we could strengthen our relationship with ourselves, learn how to meet our own needs, and take a look at our expectations of relationships.
I’ve always thought of problem-solving as a strength, with the emphasis on solving problems. I’m only now realizing the power of simply experiencing problems, patiently and fully, even affectionately, before racing to a solution and applying it as quickly as possible. Could there be more power in the problem than in the solution, at least in the beginning of problem-solving? That possibility makes me smile.