“Confronting the Problem Without Confronting the Person”

If your objective is to achieve a goal, deliver results, hit a deadline, deliver a product, then when there are problems, you should try your best to lead the conversation to focus on the problem and not the person.

(Of course if you really think the problem is the person, bookmark this newsletter, and read about my thoughts on “Managing Others” instead)

🔬The Problem of the Problem:

Often we didn’t get to thoroughly investigate a problem because we spent time arguing how we felt, justifying our intentions, what we did, what didn’t do, etc. We also often jumped into discussing options prematurely (and then wasting even more time debating why it’s premature to discuss solutions).

💊Try This Framework:

When investigating the problem, ask both sides to ONLY describe the “the context,” “what happened,” and “the impact” the way we saw them.

In other words, the things we ought to suspend are emotions, the why, judgements, and solutions. This method allows both side to compare notes and look at how each side understand the situation. It allows both side to focus on what happened.

💬A Sample Script:

Difficult to put into practice? You may want to structure the conversation into slightly more rigid steps to help both sides stay on track. Here is a sample script:

“Let’s investigate the problem and focus on the problem first. I promise we will get to the people, me, you, our teams, other humankind. I have found this approach less scary and more useful. Here is what we will do. We will take turns and share these 3 things:

1, Let’s describe the context and the circumstances as we remember them
2, Let’s share what we saw happened
3, Let’s share the impact we each witnessed”

🤨 Why Does This Work?

This is a structure that gives everyone in the conversation a chance to NOT get distracted. Imagine “the context,” “what happened,” and “the impact” as guardrails. These guardrails set the boundary of the path of the conversation.

Another way to think of these guardrails is to consider them as our protection. Just like guardrails on a flimsy bridge, focusing on “the context,” “what happened,” and “the impact” save us from falling into the abyss of feelings and judgements.

㊙ Pro Tip:

If you are discussing the problem with folks you don’t have a great rapport with, or if you sense that the participants are becoming fearful / avoidant / defensive, have all sides answer these 3 questions in private and then share them to everyone. This approach reduces the tendency of one side reacting and adjusting their answers base on the sharing of the other side.

I know this sounds mechanical. Furthermore, obviously, there are heaps of additional skills to deploy when navigating these kinds of conversations. But trust me, by just experimenting with this framework, the discussions will become more peaceful, productive, and, yep, empathetic.

Try this and share with me your experience.