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The problem solver’s mindset

 | December 15, 2013

Problems and conflicts happen, but they provide us with information we can use in fixing what needs fixing.


Every organisation needs effective problem solvers at all levels of its line of business, working as individuals or as members of a team.

Ask anyone in the workplace if problem solving is part of his daily activity and he’s likely to answer “yes” if he considers the question carefully.

We know that problem solving is a critical element of our work, but not many of us know how to do it effectively.

To develop the problem-solving mindset, we need to teach our conscious and subconscious minds to work together rapidly and accurately with all the issues presented in a problematic situation.

A problem could be as simple as a kid crying uncontrollably, as difficult as an organisation’s loss of critical staff or as complex as a tsunami devastating a city.

People usually tend to react in one, two or all of the following ways when faced with a problem:

  • They get afraid or uncomfortable and wish it would go away.
  • They feel that they have to come up with an answer and it has to be the right answer.
  • They look for someone to blame.

Being faced with a problem becomes a problem. And that’s a problem because, in fact, there are always going to be problems.

There are two reasons why we tend to see a problem as a problem:

  • Our mind tells us it has to be solved, but we’re not sure how to find the best solution, and there will probably be conflicts about what the best solution is. Most of us tend to be conflict-averse.
  • We don’t feel comfortable dealing with conflict. We tend to have the feeling that something bad is going to happen.

The objective of a good problem-solving process is to make us and our organisation more conflict-friendly and more competent in resolving conflicts.

There are two important things you need to remember about problems and conflicts.

First, they happen all the time.

Second, they are opportunities to improve the system and the relationships within it. They actually provide us with information that we can use to resolve what needs fixing and do a better job.

Because people are born problem solvers, the biggest challenge is to overcome the tendency to immediately come up with a solution. The most common mistake in problem solving is trying to find a solution right away. You can’t put the solution at the beginning of the process because it has to come at the end of the process.

Here are some of the best-of-the-breed steps to take in an effective problem-solving process.

Clarify the issues

  • Be clear about what the problem is. Is it really a problem and is it your problem?
  • Remember that different people might have different views of what the issues are.

Understand everyone’s interests

This is a critical step that is usually missing. Ensure you have covered and understood the true issues. Keep an open mind.
Interests are the needs that you want to satisfy in any given solution. We often ignore our true interests as we become attached to one particular solution. This solution must be a win-win for you and the others.
The best solution is the one that satisfies everyone’s interests.
This is the time for active listening. Ignore your differences for a while and listen to each other with the intention to understand. If you don’t do this, you may be missing a crucial element of the process.
This is the time to do some brainstorming. There may be lots of room for creativity. Decide your solution wisely. What are the pluses and minuses? Be honest.
What’s the best option on balance? Is there a way to bundle a number of options together for a more satisfactory solution?

Document the agreement and the solution

  • Don’t rely on memory.
  • Writing it down will help you think through all the details and implications.

Agree on contingencies, monitoring, and evaluation

  • Conditions may change. Make contingency agreements about foreseeable future circumstances. How will you monitor compliance and follow-through?
  • Create opportunities to evaluate the agreements and their implementation. (“Let’s try it this way for two months and then review it.”)

You can learn to develop effective problem solving mindsets. It does take some time and much attention, but less time and attention than would be required by a problem not well solved. What it really takes is a willingness to slow down.

Imagine that a problem is like a curve on the road. Take it right and you’ll find yourself in good shape for the straight path that follows. Take it too fast and you may not be in as good a shape.

This process can be used in a large group, between two people, or by one person who is faced with a difficult decision. The more difficult and important the problem, the more necessary it is to use a disciplined process.

Having a structured approach of thinking and responding is important not only in simple problem solving but also in a crisis. Don’t worry if it feels a bit unfamiliar and uncomfortable at first. You’ll have lots of opportunities to practice.

Julian Leicester is a London-trained subconscious specialist. He can be contacted at julianleiceste[email protected] or www.hypno-station.com


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