mardi 19 décembre 2006

How are you at solving problems?

Monday 30 January, 7 a.m.
The alarm clock’s persistent ring gave Steve little option. He had
to get up.
As he pushed the bedroom curtain aside, he could see steady
rain piercing the darkness, illuminated by the amber hue of the
fluorescent street lighting.
‘Oh God,’ he mumbled, still half-asleep. ‘What a miserable morn-
He was surprised to find the kitchen light on and Lynn sitting at
the breakfast bar, already dressed. She had paperwork scattered
in front of her.
‘Why are you up so early?’ he asked, screwing up his eyes against
the harsh light.
‘Oh, I’m delivering that new internal communications course
today – alone!’ Lynn replied. ‘I’m just wanting to read through it
again before I set off.’
‘Are you worried about it?’ Steve enquired.
‘No, I just want to feel well prepared,’ she replied. ‘But I’m feeling
Steve had been reaching for the milk in the fridge, but stopped
in his tracks.
‘You’re feeling what?’ he asked.
‘Confident,’ replied Lynn.
‘Not reasonably confident?’ probed Steve.
Lynn laughed. ‘No, confident – based on good preparation and a
healthy level of self-belief!’
‘You’re going to beat me in the race to become a north-easterner
on that compass, aren’t you?’ suggested Steve.
‘Who said it was a race?’ replied Lynn. ‘I thought it was a jour-
‘Well, you seem a lot happier these days,’ observed Steve. ‘If it’s
a journey, I feel I’m dragging my feet – because the prospect of
going to work right now holds little attraction, especially on a wet
Monday morning in January.’
‘I do feel better,’ said Lynn. ‘It feels as if the changes I’ve made
are reaping benefits.’
‘Wish I could say the same,’ said Steve.
That morning, 7.45 a.m.
As he drove through the gloom – both of the winter’s morning
and of his state of mind – a light brightened the inside of the car.
It was his mobile phone with a message:
Steve placed the phone back down and sighed wearily.
‘Apparently not very good,’ he answered.
His thoughts turned to which particular problems he had had to
solve recently.
Top of his list was his over-indulgence in drink. But, in fairness, he
had made a commitment to Lynn four weeks ago and had stuck
to his side of the bargain. Only once had he gone to the pub on
the way home – but that was for a colleague’s farewell drink.
Then there was the issue of his mother’s funeral. He had gone to
the funeral and received a surprisingly warm reception from rela-
tives who had last seen him some years before.
In fact, they’d shared Steve’s views on his father – but admit-
ted openly that they had lacked the courage to voice their opin-
ions. A cousin had also said that she had found Steve’s mum very
abrasive in her latter years and blamed her for causing friction
throughout the family.
Steve had enjoyed seeing some of his family so much that he’d
asked several of them to dinner next month.
Then there was his work. Well, what a contrast between the
spring in Lynn’s step and the ball and chain round his ankles.
The more he thought about it, however, the more he remem-
bered how uncertain Lynn had been about returning to work and
the pressures of being a working mum. Yet she had got through
these doubts and now felt confident – for the first time in her
working life.
‘If I could only sort out the Bulldog,’ Steve considered, ‘my life
would be so different.’
That evening, 6.30 p.m.
‘Hi, Gorgeous!’ greeted Steve, as he gave Lynn a lingering hug.
‘How’s my boy?’ he asked, lifting up Nicky to embrace them both
together, warmly.
‘You seem unusually bright,’ observed Lynn. ‘At least, compared
to your mood this morning.’
‘Well, I got a text today,’ said Steve. ‘How are you at solving
‘I’d say you’re good,’ offered Lynn.
‘And I’d agree,’ replied Steve. ‘But I’ve been dodging the biggest
problem in my life and today I decided I’m going to resolve it one
way or the other.’
‘You’re leaving me for another woman?’ joked Lynn.
‘Beggars can’t be choosers,’ fired back Steve.
‘So what are you going to do?’ asked Lynn. ‘Poison the Bulldog’s
blueberry muffin?’
‘No, I’m going to speak to him about it,’ replied Steve. ‘But, first,
I’m going to call my team together – apologize for being over-
bearing – and motivate them to roll up their sleeves and pull
together. Second, I’m going to work my butt off this next month
to get some sales in. Finally, I’m going to ask for a meeting with
Dave, demonstrate the improvement and tell him to cut me some
‘Wow!’ said Lynn. ‘Have you been swallowing the bravery pills?’
‘No,’ replied Steve, ‘I’ve just worked out how to deal with my
biggest problem.’
‘And what if he tells you to bugger off?’ asked Lynn.
‘I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it.’
‘Well, you certainly look a lot happier tonight,’ Lynn suggested.
‘I feel better,’ he replied. ‘But anyway, how did your course go?’
‘Really well,’ said Lynn. ‘I felt good when I stood up and I reckon
the group fed off how I was feeling.’
‘So, no panic attacks, no hot flushes, no stuttering with nerves?’
Steve asked.
‘No, I’d even go as far as to say that I enjoyed it,’ concluded
Recognizing the problem
Problems are part of life and Lynn and Steve, just like every one of
us, have their fair share.
Everyone has problems to deal with, but successful and confident
people handle them better. Learning to solve problems has the
potential to build confidence and coping skills.
Problems in themselves are neither ‘good’ nor ‘bad’. It’s how we
deal with them that really matters.
How we RESPOND to the problems is what REALLY matters.
For some time now, they’ve both been struggling along, doing the
best that they can and it’s only recently that they’ve begun to open
up and to communicate together in a meaningful way about the
difficulties they’ve been hiding from one another.
In other words, their self-awareness is increasing.
More important still, they are each coming to realize the individual
problems that they’ve been keeping secret even from themselves.
Admittedly, at the beginning, opening up to one another was a
very scary experience, particularly for Steve. This increased self-
awareness caused him to recognize specific problems for the first
time in his life.
Initially, it felt as if he was developing new problems – that things
were getting worse rather than better.
However, once he understood the difficulties and saw the big pic-
ture more clearly, things rapidly improved.
Increasing self-awareness initially makes us feel uncomfortable,
but it is the gateway to change and personal growth.
It was Lynn who pointed out that his problems with his father,
his family, his driven-ness, his drinking, with Dave the Bulldog,
and even in his relationship with Lynn herself, had been there all
along. He had just not stopped long enough to notice.
In relation to some problems, though, Steve had been in denial.
Other problems he simply chose to ignore, hoping they might dis-
But denial and ignoring are methods of coping that rarely work for
long. They certainly fail in solving problems, building confidence
and finding personal happiness. In the long term, they are disem-
powering rather than enabling.
In a sense, Steve has been protecting himself by refusing to accept
some of the difficulties, or to appreciate their full extent and the
detrimental effect they are having on his family and colleagues.
As long as he stayed in that state of ‘blindness’, however, there was
little to no chance of him solving any problems whatsoever.
Before we can begin to solve a problem, we first have to recognize
and accept its existence.
Although glaringly obvious, this is often surprisingly difficult to
All along, the clues to the fact they had problems were there, if
Lynn and Steve were only willing to pause long enough and look
with open minds.
Sometimes, though, it takes a personal crisis to occur to stop us in
our tracks and to cause us to question our lives deeply enough.
Sometimes we need to stop and take stock, to examine our behav-
iour and our deepest feelings in order to discover where we are and
what’s happening in our lives.
Understanding the problem
Understanding problems can be a challenge, particularly when
they first present themselves.
Lynn and Steve had each started to think about their problems
when on their own. However, there’s a limit to the usefulness of
this personal reflection as a way of solving problems. Sometimes
things just go round and round inside our heads and do not take
us any further forward.
The best progress Steve and Lynn have made so far in problem
solving has come when they started to talk together.
Although, at first, opening up to one another felt ‘risky’, it has
been an exciting breakthrough in their relationship and they sense
it as they laugh and joke together more than they have in a long
And it’s clearly getting easier for them to practise, especially now
that they are beginning to appreciate the benefits.
Lynn is definitely feeling happier and more confident, particularly
at work. And Steve is feeling more hopeful about the future as he
begins to see a possible way forward.
One secret to understanding a problem is to ask ourselves the right
Steve and Lynn are learning this skill from the mysterious text
messages they are receiving in the form of searching questions.
They’re beginning to appreciate that asking the right questions is
the way to start solving their problems.
The best questions produce the best kind of answers.
One of the difficulties has been that, for some time now, Lynn has
been asking herself poor-quality questions, such as:
What’s wrong with me?
Why can’t I lose weight?
Who’s to blame?
Similarly, Steve has been asking himself unhelpful questions:
What’s the point in trying any more?
Why me?
How could he do this to me?
Lynn and Steve need to focus their minds on asking meaningful
questions that will lead them forward towards possible meaning-
ful solutions.
And they are starting to do it now.
Questions such as:
What exactly is the problem here?
Where is the ‘up’ side to this problem?
What is the ‘down’ side to this problem?
What do I want from this situation?
How could I make this situation work for me?
How can I turn things around for the better?
What – and who – matters most to me in my life right
What am I ready to do right now to improve things?
What am I prepared to consider doing in the future to
improve things?
What should I refuse to put up with any more?
What do I have to change about my thinking and be-
haviour to empower me?
Asking the right questions will help Steve and Lynn to understand
the true nature of their difficulties, and enable them to start for-
mulating a plan for dealing with them.
Meaningful questions bring the problem into sharper focus.
Developing an action plan
Recognizing their problems and understanding the nature of them
are moving Steve and Lynn forwards towards solving them.
Steve has already given his work problem with Dave some thought
and has devised a plan.
He’s been asking himself some searching questions and is clearer
in his mind about the situation:
What does he want? – To get Dave off his back.
What should he refuse to put up with any longer? – Dave’s
persistent bullying, which is eroding his self-worth and confidence.
What he is prepared to do next? – He has put together a provi-
sional action plan.
Later that evening
‘You know, it’s almost the reverse for me,’ began Lynn, as Steve
watched the highlights of another inglorious United failure in
the league.
Steve hit the Live Pause button on his Sky Plus and turned to Lynn,
giving her his full attention.
‘Sorry, what were you saying?’
‘My situation’s the reverse of yours, as far as problem-solving is
concerned,’ began Lynn again, ‘because I’m much happier at
work, but I’m still struggling with guilt.’
‘Guilt about what?’ asked Steve.
‘Guilt about being firmer with mum, guilt about having less time
with Nicky, guilt about pruning back my friends,’ Lynn expand-
‘Well, your mum is getting her shopping online and you now
pop in at weekends,’ said Steve. ‘And she’s seeing more of Nicky
when you leave him there while you’re at yoga. Nicky’s seeing
more of his doting gran – and really enjoying school. And your
pals are now aware that friendship involves listening as well as
talking, which, for them, is a newly acquired skill!’
‘I suppose it sounds reasonable when you put it that way,’ re-
flected Lynn.
‘Lynn, you had to find time for yourself – and look how you’re en-
joying yoga,’ continued Steve. ‘And, if you don’t mind me saying,
you’re looking rather tasty and well toned these days.’
‘As opposed to what?’ asked Lynn in fake indignation.
‘As opposed to being rather tasty … but less well toned,’ replied
Steve, thinking quickly.
‘Right,’ said Lynn, ‘seeing as my muscle groups meet your ap-
proval, how about improving your mental muscle?’
‘What do you suggest?’ asked Steve.
‘Let’s get your brain in shape for a meeting with Dave by rehears-
ing your chat with him,’ she continued. ‘You tell me how he’ll
behave and I’ll play his part in a role play.’
‘Mmm,’ said Steve sceptically.
‘We do role plays all the time at work,’ insisted Lynn. ‘You’ll really
benefit from thinking this conversation through.’
‘OK,’ said Steve. ‘But you’ll have to put on 10 stone to look the
‘Enough nonsense,’ said Lynn. ‘Sit down and write down all the
points he’ll try to score against you. Start with Regret, Reason
and Remedy.’
‘What’s that?’ asked Steve, perplexed.
‘Well, you want to take the moral high ground in the conversa-
tion with Dave to ensure he doesn’t start picking off your weak
arguments. So start by saying you’re sorry he’s been disappointed
in your performance – go through the reasons as to why it’s been
difficult – and tell him how you’ll sort it out. It’s a technique called
Regret, Reason and Remedy.’
‘He’ll just pounce on an apology as a sign of weakness,’ said
‘It’s a sign of strength,’ replied Lynn. ‘It’s weak people who can
never bring themselves to apologize. We all have failings. Only
strong people recognize them.’
‘Regret, reason, remedy,’ reiterated Steve. ‘I’ll remember that.’
‘Of course, you’ll have to practise getting that word “sorry”
across your lips in the first place,’ she added.
‘Cheeky!’ concluded Steve.
Lynn’s right to put some brakes on Steve’s enthusiasm.
She senses Steve could rush ahead too hastily, before he has suf-
ficiently thought through all the different solutions and their pos-
sible consequences.
She recognizes that they need to do some brainstorming together
on the possible solutions and draw up a more detailed final plan
before putting it into action.
Her role-playing idea is one excellent way of achieving both these
aims simultaneously.
The problems are not yet solved and the plan may not yet be per-
fected but it’s certainly taking shape. This brings a feeling of relief
and some immediate benefits.
Both Lynn and Steve are feeling a lot happier, less confused and
more in control of their lives.

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