Why Problems are Problems and Your Role in Solving Them
How do you deal with problems that crop up in your life? I don’t mean the kinds of problems that gnaw at your soul and rob you of sleep – that’s a little beyond my payscale and realm of expertise. Nor am I talking about the category of problem that chips annoyingly at micro-seconds of your day, but lacks any significant setback. This would include things like lost keys, dog pooping on the rug, etc. I’m talking about life’s problems which hit you unsuspectingly, somewhat sideways in the middle of nowhere, and require that you get off the treadmill and fix. These are random, time consuming puzzles, and they usually deal with interpersonal relationships.
I’ve quoted Stephen Covey before in my blog and many times in my book, but the man’s work in the field of competency based living and learning (though he never coined it as such) continues to be such a powerful influence and validation of my work, that I am compelled to revisit him frequently. Have a look at “Habit 5” from his landmark, “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People”, and you’ll be hard pressed in finding a better way to begin solving a problem between people.
“Seek first to understand, then to be understood.” (Covey, Habit 5: Seek first to understand, then to be understood, 2021)
How many of us actually do this, even when we intentionally enter into “problem solving mode”? Covey goes further in his book to support his point, suggesting that most of us do not listen to understand, but listen to reply, an observation shared by Russell Bowers, a talented CBC journalist you interviewed me about my book earlier in the summer. (Bowers, 2021) (Covey, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, 1989)
By the way, if you really want to see this point “driven” home, go to https://www.franklincovey.com/habit-5/ and watch the short video. You'll get the sense that somehow the Saturday Night Live writers have infiltrated the Franklin Covey offices!
Problem solving made the cut for my 8 pillar competencies because I view it as a learning, teaching, working and living competency that is both distinct from the other 7, but at the same time interdependent with them. Problem solving, for instance is required for collaboration or communication and yet it is not the same as either one of those things. Similarly, it is impossible to be a competent problem solver while being a mediocre communicator.
A newfound friend and associate of mine recently did the “What’s your sharpest competency?” quiz, which you can do here by the way. I won’t profess to have attached a ton of scientific rigour to this instrument, in fact, full disclosure, it’s what we in the marketing profession call a “lead magnet”, intended to get people to your website at which time you earn their permission for future engagement. Anyway, the quiz results revealed to her that her sharpest competency was…dah, dah-dah, dah…”problem solving”. Now, if it had been “curiosity” or “critical thinking”, or any of the 8 pillars, I could have easily “fit” that into my perception of her, based upon what I know of her. We do the same thing with astrological readings or fortune cookies. It’s called confirmation bias. But when I think of her, and my recent interactions with her, I honestly do see her fitting this description quite accurately. While her job title says otherwise, she is a professional problem solver. But I'm sure she's made a conscious decision in her life to excel at this competency. It makes her job, and probably her life, more effective.
Next time you’re facing one of those surprise happenstances in your life, and there’s a very good chance you will within the next week, do yourself, and the other person(s) involved, a few favors. Realize that this is going to take time and cannot be rushed. This is the first mindset in which you should enter, even before seeking first to understand (sorry Stephen). There is no shortcut to problem solving. This is why they are problems. Commit the time, then listen to understand. The formal and well established “problem solving model” is below. I refer to it often in my book, acknowledging that it’s not mine, nor is there a universally accepted process. But whether the one you find has 4 steps or 8 steps it will always come down to the bare bones structure of:
Define the problem (this is where the deal-breaking listening comes in)
Ideate a list of possible solutions (WRITE THEM DOWN)
Evaluate solutions (literally come up with a pros and cons spreadsheet if need be)
Select and implement the solution deemed most beneficial to all impacted (remember to plan this out. Make sure everyone’s on the same page)
There's another step we could add to the above, but to me it's more of a reminder of the cyclical nature of problem solving, than an actual step. And that is to monitor and manage outcomes. This is where we evaluate how effective our solution has been, and allows for course correction, before moving on to the next problem.
During those times between problems, which you’ll now attack with even greater conviction and confidence, PRACTICE is required. This is basically the central theme from my entire book, podcast and movement. These 8 pillar competencies are in us all, sitting dormant most of the time. Our job at being better is to work on them, get the reps in, and improve. To that end, I leave you with one such action from my book, and my sincere best wishes to you at being better at being human.
COMPETENCY: PROBLEM SOLVING
While “getting shit done” is common bravado, we would do well being guided by a slightly more patient mantra called process. This will take more of your time up front, but save you more in the long run.
Identify and describe a current problem and a part of it that you need to process further. Then do so, first by writing down some of the problem’s trickier components. (Gaudet, 2021)
Bowers, R. (2021, June 16). CBC Daybreak Alberta. Retrieved from CBC Listen: https://www.cbc.ca/listen/live-radio/1-95-daybreak-alberta/clip/15855576-undoing-habits-on-a-daily-basis
Covey, S. (1989). The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. New York: Simon Schuster.
Covey, S. (2021, Sep 12). Habit 5: Seek first to understand, then to be understood. Retrieved from Franklin Covey: https://www.franklincovey.com/habit-5/
Gaudet, D. (2021). The Daily Undoing: Being Better at Being Human. Calgary, AB, Canada: Tellwell.