The question of what you should discuss may be the most important concept we cover in this book. When problems come in complicated bundles, and they often do, it s not always easy to know which problem or problems to address.
For example, a teenage daughter swears to her father she ll be home from her first big date by midnight but doesn t come home until 1 a.m. Here s the pressing question: What problem should he confront? That s easy, you say. She was late. True, that s one way to describe the problem. Here are several other ways:
She broke a promise. She violated her father s trust. She drove her father insane with fear that she had been killed in a car wreck. She purposely and willfully disobeyed a family rule. She openly defied her father in an effort to break free of parental control. She was getting even with her father for grounding her the weekend before. She knew it would drive her father bonkers if she stayed out late with a guy who sports a dozen face perforations, and so she did that.
Although it s true that the daughter walked in the door 60 minutes after curfew, this may not be the exact and only problem her father wants to discuss. Here s the added danger: If he selects the wrong problem from this lengthy list of possible problems and handles it well, he may be left with the impression that he s done the right thing. However, if you want to join the ranks of the world s best problem solvers, you have to identify and deal with the right problem or it will never go away. This still leaves us with the question: What is the right problem?
To get a feel for how to choose the right problem, let s look at an actual case we recently uncovered during a training session for school principals. It s from a grade school principal s experience. During recess a teacher notices the following interaction. Two second-grade girls are playing on the monkey bars. As Maria pushes Sarah to hurry her along, Sarah shouts, Don t you ever touch me again, you dirty little Mexican! Maria counters with, At least I m not a big fatty! This is the precipitating event.
The principal calls the children s parents, describes what took place, and explains that the school will be disciplining them. Maria s parents are fine with the idea and thank the principal, and that s the end of the discussion. Sarah s mother takes a different approach. She asks, Exactly what form of discipline will each child receive? The principal explains that the discipline will suit the nature of the offense.
The next day Sarah s mother shows up unannounced, catches the principal in the hallway, and proclaims in loud and harsh tones that she doesn t want the school to discipline her daughter. She ll take care of the discipline on her own. The principal explains that the school is bound by public policy to take action. In fact, tomorrow Sarah will be separated from her friends during lunch and required to take her meal in the media room under the supervision of a teacher s aide. That s the prescribed discipline. Sarah s mother then announces that tomorrow she ll be picking up her daughter for a private mommy-daughter lunch at a nearby restaurant.
There are several problems in this scenario. When the principals in the training session hear about the incident, many become emotional. That s an easy one to figure out, some suggest. You turn it over to the district discipline committee. Besides, since there are racial issues involved here, you could get the mother in trouble for interfering. Of course, the goal here isn t to cause the mother grief , so what should the principal do?
As the principals settle down to discuss the problem in earnest, they bring to the surface an assortment of issues: First, there s the problem of meddling. She has no right to ask about the other child s discipline. It s a private matter. No, the bigger issue is that she is demanding to take away the school s right to discipline. That s simply unacceptable. Plus the kid s going to be rewarded with a special lunch instead of being punished. Who wants that? How about the fact that the mother is rude and manipulative? That can t be good.
Finally, one of the assistant principals brings up an issue that everyone seems to think is important: I m worried that the parent and the school won t be partnering in solving the problem. I d want to work with the mother to come up with a plan jointly. Otherwise, she might begin to characterize the school officials as the enemy, and the child will soon agree.
Once this important issue is highlighted as the main problem, a discussion can be held to resolve it and the principal can get what it is he or she really wants: a working partnership with the parent that will help benefit the child. Solutions to any of the other problems would not have accomplished this, and the frustration would have remained.
So take note: If the solution you re applying doesn t get you the results you really want, it s likely you re dealing with the wrong problem entirely.
Before we deal with the aggressive mother, let s look at another problem. This time you re working with the owner of a real estate firm in a rural community.
The woman who works the front desk is constantly coming in to work late, the owner explains.
Have you talked to her? you ask.
And then what happens? you continue.
She s on time for a few days, maybe even a week, and then she starts coming in late again.
Then what do you say to her?
I tell her that she s late and that I don t like it.
This situation presents a terrific example of what separates the best problem solvers from everyone else. The owner has the courage to confront the desk clerk. That separates him from the worst. However, the fact that he returns to the same problem each time puts him far below the best. This is an indication that there is some other problem that needs to be discussed: The front desk clerk isn t living up to her commitments, she s disrespecting company policy, etc.
When people repeatedly make the same mistake, those who are the best at identifying and then confronting problems redefine each problem with each new infraction. They don t live the wretched life of Phil Conners, the weatherman in the movie Groundhog Day . Those who observe repeated failures and discuss each new instance as if it were the first one live the same problem (the same day) over and over, and nothing ever changes. Skilled problem solvers never live Groundhog Day. The first time a person is late, she s late; the second time, she s failed to live up to her promise; the third time she s starting down the road to discipline, etc.
In summary, if you find yourself having the same problem-solving discussion over and over again, it s likely there s another, more important problem you need to address.
As you continue your conversation with the realtor, you say, Obviously, the fact that your clerk comes in late is the behavior that catches your attention, and that s what you talk to her about. But what is the real problem here?
I m not exactly sure. I do know that it s starting to bug me a lot ”more than it probably should.
Are you becoming more upset because the problem s escalating?
Not really, the broker responds hesitantly.
Finally, you ask: When you re angry enough to complain to your wife, coworkers, or best friend about the problem, how do you describe it?
A light goes on in the broker s eyes as he excitedly states, It s killing me that she s taking advantage of our relationship. She s my neighbor, she s helped me out a lot, and now she doesn t do what I ask because she knows that I won t discipline her since we re good friends. At least that s how it feels to me.
That s the problem the broker needs to confront. He s becoming increasingly upset with each infraction because he s never dealt with the issue that is bothering him. Being late is the frozen tip floating above the chilly waters. Taking advantage of a friendship is the iceberg itself.
As you can see from these examples, learning how to get at the gist of an infraction requires time and practice. Feeling pressured by time constraints and hyped up by emotions, most people miss the real deal. It takes grade-school assistant principals twenty minutes or more to discuss the assortment of challenges presented in the case of the aggressive mother. In fact, most never come to the realization that it s the lack of cooperation that they probably ought to discuss. Many can t get past their emotional reaction. They want to stick it to the feisty mother, and frankly, that s exactly what many would do.
Along a similar vein, most parents who pace the floor nervously as a teenage daughter breaks curfew can t see beyond the hands of the clock when in truth what really has them concerned is the fact that the girl didn t have the courtesy to call them, let them know she d be late, and bring a merciful end to their tortured worrying. Many don t even realize that this is what is troubling them.
The ability to reduce an infraction to its bare essence takes patience, a sense of proportion, and precision. First, you have to take the time to unbundle the problem. People are often in too much of a hurry to do this. Their emotions propel them to move quickly, and speed rarely leads to careful thought. Second, while sorting through the issues you have to decide what is bothering you the most. If you don t, you ll end up going after either the wrong target or too many targets. Third, you have to be concise .
You have to distill the issue to a single sentence. Lengthy problem descriptions only obscure the real issue. If you can t reduce a violation to a clear sentence before you talk, the issue almost never becomes more understandable and focused as a conversation unfolds.
Let s say that despite your best efforts you keep returning to the same problem. Your emotions are getting worse , not better, and in retrospect you believe that you re choosing to talk about what s easy, convenient , or obvious but not what s important. In short, you have every reason to believe that you re repeatedly dealing with the wrong problem. How do you turn this bad habit around? To hit the right target, use the following tools.
This acronym can help define a problem as well as eliminate Groundhog Day. The first time a problem comes up, talk about the C ontent, what just happened : You drank too much at the luncheon, became inebriated, started talking too loud, made fun of our clients , and embarrassed the company. The content of a problem typically deals with a single event ”the here and now.
The next time the problem occurs, talk P attern, what has been happening over time: This is the second time this has occurred. You agreed it wouldn t happen again, and I m concerned that I can t count on you to keep a promise. Pattern issues acknowledge that problems have histories and that histories make a difference. Frequent and continued violations affect the other person s predictability and eventually harm respect and trust.
Warning: It s easy to miss the pattern and get sucked into debating content. For instance, your boss repeatedly leaves your agenda items to the end of the meeting ”meaning that they typically get abbreviated or dropped altogether. You ve spoken with her about it before. This time when you bring it up, she explains how full the agenda was and how you need to be more flexible about urgent issues. If you give in to that explanation, you ve missed the point. Your concern is not today s meeting (the content issue), it s the long-standing pattern. Sometimes the pattern sneaks up on you and a new issue arises. You point out the problem, and the other person begins to either rant or pout, something that s starting to happen a lot in your conversations with him or her. It s becoming a pattern. Influential people notice this pattern of behavior and find ways to address it before moving back to the original topic.
As the problem continues, talk about R elationship, what s happening to us . Relationship concerns are far bigger than either the content or the pattern. The issue is not that other people have disappointed you repeatedly; it s that the string of disappointments has caused you to lose trust in them: You doubt their competency, you don t respect or trust their promises, and this is affecting the way you treat one another: This is starting to put a strain on how we work together. I feel like I have to nag you to keep you in line, and I don t like doing that. I guess my fear is that I can t trust you to keep the agreements you make.
If your real concern is around the relationship and you discuss only the pattern of behavior, you re likely to find yourself feeling dissatisfied with the outcome. Even worse, you re likely to experience Groundhog Day: You ll have the same conversation again later. To understand the various kinds of content, pattern, and relationship issues that routinely pop up during crucial confrontations , consider the following three dimensions: consequences, intents, and wants. Each provides a distinct method for first unbundling and then prioritizing complex problems.
Problems are almost never contained in the behavior of the offender. They re much more likely to be contained in what happens afterward . The problem lies in the consequences. For example, a staff specialist who works for you is supposed to complete a financial analysis by noon. She miscalculates how long it will take and delivers the job to you three hours late.
The errant behavior, being late, is not the problem. What follows is. The fact that you might lose a client is what really bothers you. Or maybe it s the fact that this is the third time this person has let you down and you re beginning to wonder if you can count on her. Or perhaps it s the fact that you now may have to watch this person more closely, costing you precious time and making her feel micromanaged. Each of these things comes after the behavior, is a consequence of the original act, and helps unbundle the problem.
When you want to clarify the issue you need to confront, stop and ask yourself, What are the consequences of this problem to me? To our relationship? To the task? To other stakeholders? Analyzing the consequences helps you determine what is most important to discuss.
Let s move the analysis in another direction. A fellow you work with is causing you a problem. He cheerfully agreed to format a report you created, and then, instead of giving it to you, he handed it directly to your boss. What was he thinking? Actually, you have a theory. You believe that his intentions were selfish (he was trying to take credit); at least, this is the conclusion you ve drawn.
Let s be clear about this. You ve drawn this conclusion not as a thoughtless knee-jerk reaction, as is often the case, but as the result of mounting evidence. You ve examined the problem, you ve weighed the particulars, and you are starting to believe the person s intentions are indeed bad. When this happens, the behavior isn t the problem, at least not the big one. What came before the person acted is the problem, at least in your mind. It s the issue you ought to discuss. You have to talk about intentions.
The good news is that we address intentions all the time. Consider the father who was upset with his daughter for coming in late because she was punishing him for having grounded her. It wasn t the fact that she had been late that made him upset ”at least not totally ”it was her perceived intention that was giving him fits: She s doing it on purpose just to make me sweat. The realtor believed that the front-desk clerk was intentionally playing on their friendship to get away with coming in late. Once again, it was her perceived intent that bothered him.
Whether the father and the realtor are correct in their assessments will remain unknown until they confront the offending parties with their suspicions. And of course, deciding how they ll confront such a delicate issue isn t easy. These are invisible motives we re talking about. We re drawing conclusions about another person s unseen intent. (We ll discuss methods for stories we tell ourselves in later chapters.) Nevertheless, the conclusions the two have drawn about others underlying intent has them bothered, and these are the issues they ll need to confront eventually.
As you begin to unravel a bundle of problems ”examining the precipitating intentions and the consequences ”the list of component parts can grow so large that you may not know where to begin. What s the real issue, or at least the most important one?
The best tool for choosing from the host of possible problems is to ask what you really want and don t want. And since you re talking to another person, you ought to ask what you want for yourself , for the other person , and for the relationship . If you don t think about all three of these essential aspects, one may take a backseat and you won t solve your most important problem.
Consider the case of the two second-grade girls. Most people struggle with what to say to Sarah s mother until someone asks: What do you want to have happen with Sarah? What don t you want to have happen? You do want Sarah to be disciplined. You don t want to start a battle with her mother and make choices that limit Sarah s educational options. You don t want to send her to a new school just to show her mother who s in charge.
As far as you yourself are concerned, you want to be able to hold Sarah accountable. Public policy demands that you take action, and even if you could look the other way, you d be giving tacit approval to a nasty behavior. You don t want that. When it comes to the relationship, you want to be able to collaborate with Sarah s mother to come up with the proper type of discipline. You don t want the daughter to receive mixed messages. So what do you say? What is the problem you want to discuss? I m afraid we re sending Sarah the wrong message when we argue over the form the discipline should take.
To decide what to confront:
Think CPR ”Content, Pattern, and Relationship.
Expand the list of possible issues by considering consequences and intent.
Choose from the list by asking what you do and don t want: for yourself, others, and the relationship.
Let s apply these concepts to a real case. Your two preteen kids were invited to go to a drive-in movie with their friends who live down the street. You gave them permission to stay up late and you popped popcorn, and your children are now so excited that they can hardly see straight. Then the parents who will be taking the kids to the movie drive up to your house in their pickup truck. Their two children are seated in the back, and your kids quickly join them. You have a strict family rule about not riding in the back of a pickup, particularly one that will be driving at freeway speed to get to the movie. Your spouse feels as strongly about the safety issue as you do.
You start to raise your safety concerns, and your neighbor calls you a fussbudget and a worrywart. Before you can respond, your spouse cuts you off and tries to smooth over the issue by saying to the father who is driving, You re going to be extra careful, right? Those kids in the back are pretty precious cargo! The driver says not to worry and pulls off as your kids squeal in delight.
You re furious. What do you say to your spouse? Your first inclination is to talk about the danger. But that ship has sailed, well, sort of rumbled , off into the sunset. Although you ll return to the issue later, when your kids are around (they knew better than to get into the truck), you think that maybe you should talk about the fact that this is the second time your spouse has backed off on a family value under pressure. That s a new problem ”backing off a value (not just safety) ”and it s a pattern. Then again, what really has you miffed is the fact that your spouse cut you off as you were raising the safety issue with your neighbor. You think that your spouse s intention was cockeyed. It was more important to look cool than to ensure the safety of your children.
As you think about it, you ask yourself what you want and don t want. You want the kids to be safe ”that s a given ”but once again, you ll talk about that issue as a group . You want to be able to express concerns without being cut off or dismissed. You want your spouse to be able to talk about the issue without making you feel attacked . You don t want the discussion to turn into a fight. As far as your relationship is concerned, you want to stand as a unified front when it comes to safety. And then you put your finger on the real kicker . The pattern you are concerned about is your spouse unintentionally taking away your vote in these key decisions. Yes, that s it! It s when your spouse announces a decision publicly without ensuring that you re in agreement.
You decide to talk about making critical commitments ( especially those that deviate from values such as safety) without one another s buy-in. You want to find a way to always stand together when faced with outside pressures, and safety is certainly not an exception. That s the big issue.