Focusing on the problem is sometimes the problem

You’ve been at that meeting, right? Participants preoccupied with endlessly describing the problem, each person taking their turn to depict the problem in increasingly erudite and imaginative ways. You sit there, becoming increasingly irritated, wondering how to move the discussion away from this problem-talk and towards solution-talk.

Cutting people off and imposing your solution ideas might feel good, but is unlikely to get you very far. It might even be considered something of a career-limiting move.

One alternative is to listen carefully when others are outlining the problem, alert for when useful elements start appearing. This is called building the platform. You are listening out for the elements that describe what works – not what doesn’t work. In this way, we start the journey to solution-talk – it isn’t about a solution yet, but it gently leads the way down that track.

Some questions that could be helpful to build a platform for solution-talk:

  • What do you want to achieve today?
  • How will we know when we have made some progress?
  • What would be the benefit from solving this problem?
  • How confident are you that something can be done about this?
  • When you have tackled a problem like this before, what was most helpful? What skills and resources did you discover that you weren’t aware of before?
  • What has been going well for you?

This last question really leads down the path of problem-free talk and can transform the nature of the conversation. It can flip people into a frame of mind that helps them to think of examples of resources, skills and positive events already happening. People often dismiss these as unrelated to the ‘problem’, but they can contain the seed of a useful way forward. Remember though, sometimes people need the space to describe the problem first, or they can’t hear you trying to lead them to another, more solution-focused place. They just repeat their description of the problem in other ways, because they are convinced you didn’t hear them right the first time around (or the second or third either).

Acknowledge their problem, and gently help them to move on.

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