Sex, Drugs, and Problem Solving, Part II

Overcoming the difficulties of the problem-solving approach

Problem-Solving Problems

Problems fall in one of two categories depending on whether the solutions require change

  1. in your own behavior or
  2. in others' behavior.

Speaking for myself, the former are easier to solve, and I have a number of techniques for solving them. I have also found that some problems seem at first to be in the second category, but upon further investigation, I am able to find changes in my own behavior that solve the problems. This realization is empowering and helps me be independent. However, changing my own behavior requires discipline, and it is clear that important problems simply cannot be solved through the change of a single person’s behavior. Furthermore, a change in my own behavior may achieve a solution while alienating and disempowering others. Then those others become less cooperative in solving bigger problems. Considering this, I would prefer a solution that invites their cooperation.

For this essay, I will assume therefore that you are willing and able to change your own behavior, if necessary, to solve a problem. However, I will assume the solution requires the cooperation of others

  • because they are part of the problem and they must change their behavior to solve it or
  • because their help is a necessary part of moving toward a solution, or
  • because solving it entirely by yourself would alienate or disempower them.

These “others” I will refer to as prospects.

The Negative Stance

You raise some interpersonal challenges for yourself as soon as you adopt the problem-solving approach, because it is an inherently negative view on a situation. You observe that there is a problem, that prospects are doing something “wrong.” They must change in order for the situation to “improve.” It is important to be conscious of this negative stance. If it is expressed, then your prospects are likely to be hurt, annoyed, or otherwise turned off.

Luckily, every problem can also be cast in a positive light, as an unrealized potential.

Tony Robbins, in Unlimited Power, lays out instructions for motivating change in prospects’ behavior. He recommends determining whether prospects are negatively motivated, by current problems, or positively motivated, by future potentials. Indeed, motivational literature from The Power of Positive Thinking to The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People has recommended focus on future potential (e.g. “begin with the end in mind”).

The literature on positive thinking also suggests this view, but primarily to relieve the anxiety of negative thoughts regarding the current state of affairs. In general, I recall very few suggestions to see the unrealized potential in situations, as compared to seeing the problems in situations.

However, I do not think the negative stance can be abandoned entirely. To perceive a situation’s unrealized potential requires intentional imagination of an uncertain and obscure future. Meanwhile, problems are frequently certain, clear, undeniable, and present. The stick is harsher than the carrot. The certainty and clarity of present problems also frequently suggest solutions. Though they may be near-sighted or temporary, they can be acted upon. On the other hand, unrealized potential doesn’t suggest immediate action.

Part III will discuss a common problem I call Premature Elucidation.

Tags: Business, Philosophy

Updated at: 5 December 2006 12:12 AM