Let’s Focus on the Problem, Not the Person

What we know for sure as long-time mediators is that how you frame your conversation, the topic you say you want to talk about, can have a large impact on how collaborative and constructive the conversation is.

In our field, we have a well-worn saying: Be Soft on the Person, Hard on the Problem.

That has an intuitive logic, but what does it mean exactly?

If we put this in a work context, consider these two statements about how proceed in addressing a budget concern:

“I would like to straighten out the budget mess you’ve created.”

“Let’s see if we can reallocate our expenditures for the coming year so they line up with our priorities.”

The first statement focuses on addressing a vague problem – the budget mess. That may have meaning in one person’s mind, but a “mess” can mean a lot of different things. It is also framed as one person’s need, not a joint issue. Most problematic, however, is it has blame in it (you did something wrong!). This triggers defensiveness and makes the other person the problem.

Making the other person the problem, not separating them from the problem, is the trickiest to see. Our everyday lives are steeped in blaming another person, so it can be a slippery concept to even notice. But it’s such a powerful tool in creating a constructive climate within which to have a collaborative conversation.

Have a look at that second statement and how it is worded. This second version is more specific (no longer about a “mess” but about reallocation and alignment). It suggests a collective joining together. It also takes blame away and offers a way forward (to use priorities as the criteria in deciding how much money to spend on an item).

What if you do think the person is the problem? Still, it is important to not make the person the problem. If you do need to talk about someone else, you are better beginning the topic with their behaviour, that is: what you have observed. This takes a bit of mental gymnastics at first. Once you get into the habit of noticing and talking about behaviours (vs your judgements about those behaviours), it can make a big difference.

This practice of separating the person from the problem also liberates you to introduce a vast array of people challenges. Get in the habit of describing what you observe in very objective, sensory, and descriptive terms. It can be helpful to think of it as a “videotape” of the behaviour that you want to identify or is concerning to you.

By removing your interpretation, you reduce the chance of a defensive response from the other person and you invite them to provide an alternative interpretation to yours. When you remove the frame from being about their inadequacies, they can have the opportunity to tell you their perspectie. They have the opporutnity to share why they might be behaving in the way they have been and it invites the possibility of a third, new way. A new way could be, for example, a personal challenge is in the way, or it could be a fracture in a team relationship that should be attended to that you didn’t know about unitl you invited them to share their point of view.

In fact, you have very limited information about their behaviours until they begin to fill you in.

This is the beginning of a constructive conversation where you can both share your perspectives on what has been occurring and move towards resolution.

This is in contrast to you sharing your original interpretation of their behaviour, which was most likely not completely accurate. That way often leads to a disagreement over different interpretations. Not as useful as creating the opporutnity for more information for wiser decisions.

We go into more detail about this practice in Step 5 of our Difficult Conversations model, which focuses on introducing problems in a way that others are able to hear without reacting. A key component of constructive collaborative conversations.

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