What problem are you trying to solve?

by Pace on January 21, 2009

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Chapter 7: What problem are you trying to solve?

What Problem are you Trying to Solve?

Sometimes we get caught up in a conversation and forget our original motivation. We’ve found that it often helps to ask, “What problem are you trying to solve?”

Pace’s Story: Don Needs a Widget

One day at work, my coworker Don came to my office to ask me for help.

Don: “Hi, Pace, we need you to drop everything you’re doing and make changes to Widget A!”

Me: “Hold on a sec, what problem are you trying to solve?”

Don: “Well, we need Widget A to do deduction…”

Me: “Why do you need Widget A in particular?”

Don: “Hmm, well, I guess any widget would do, actually…”

Me: “Could you use Widget B instead? It already exists, and does deduction and more!”

Don: “That’s great, we’ll use Widget B instead, thanks!”

It’s not always quite that simple, but situations like this happen at work all the time. People get caught up in the details and lose sight of the big picture. They forget what problem they’re trying to solve. By asking what problem they’re trying to solve, you can help them with the big picture instead of a detail. This works in relationships, too:

Steve’s Example: Fred Needs Quality Time

Steve is a night owl. He works afternoons, so is up much later than his partner Fred. Fred works 8 to 5 and has become frustrated at the difference in their schedules.

Fred: “Steve, I need you to come to bed by 11 on weeknights.”

Steve: “I’d really rather not. That’s too early for me.”

Fred: “It’s important to me. I need you to be in bed by 11.”

Steve: “Alright, but why? What problem are you trying to solve?”

Fred: “Well, I feel like the only quality time we have these days is when we’re cuddling and talking right before bed. I need more of that.”

Steve: “Okay, honey, let’s talk about that. Maybe we can figure out some ways to get some more quality time together during the afternoons.”

Think about what would have happened if the people in those examples would have simply acquiesced to the initial request. If Pace had said, “Sure, I’ll get right on those changes to Widget A,” or if Steve had said, “Sure, I’ll be happy to adjust my sleep schedule a little,” none of the people involved would have gotten to the root of the problem. If you fix the symptom instead of fixing the disease, more symptoms will crop up in the future. Pace’s coworker might have needed an additional feature that Widget B already had. Fred might have asked for additional things from Steve, without ever fulfilling his need for quality time. Asking “What problem are you trying to solve?” can help everyone involved see the big picture and understand the situation more clearly.

Kyeli’s Story: What Are We Doing?

Pace and I were discussing a conflict in our plans for the weekend and it escalated into a heated argument. We were both feeling upset and unhappy, and had lost sight of the original issue. In the middle of an angry sentence, Pace stopped and said, “Wait a minute. What problem are we trying to solve?”

I paused. She paused. We both started thinking. After a while, I said, “Well, my feelings were hurt when you snapped at me. When I talked about it, it seemed to make you defensive and I felt attacked again. I reacted with anger and we escalated into this. But all that happened after we resolved our schedule conflict. We solved that problem during the first ten minutes of the conversation, though. So I guess at this point there really isn’t a problem, but I’m still feeling hurt and upset.”

She put her hand on my arm, looked into my eyes, and said, “I’m sorry. I did get defensive because I knew I’d hurt your feelings and I felt bad. That wasn’t fair. I’m sorry and I love you.”

At that point, we were able to stop arguing. She gave me further reassurance, we held each other, and we went on with our evening and had a lovely time of it. The original problem had long since been solved. The only remaining issues, our emotional states, were easily soothed with kindness and reassurance. Without asking what problem we were trying to solve, she and I might have argued much longer or gotten even more upset!

It isn’t always easy to figure out what problem you’re trying to solve. It may take some time to uncover the underlying issues behind a conflict. The root is often underground. Be patient with yourself and your partner, because taking the time to find those roots will yield deeper, more lasting solutions.

Asking what problem you’re trying to solve is a simple, effective way of cutting through a potential argument or misunderstanding. It gets to the root of the problem and enables you and your partner to focus on the real issues instead of the symptoms. This allows for richer, happier communication!


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