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The problem with problem solving


“What if I ask my boss to rearrange the meetings to the following week and agree to do extra work in lieu?” – that was a participant’s response to a simulated conflict situation (The context being that they couldn’t take time off work at short notice to attend a once-in-a-lifetime, social event during a very busy work period).


This is just one of the many excellent problem-solving approaches that the audience at the Equal Engineers conference came out with last week when we posed this conflict to them.


I’m not surprised of their abilities in this area though. Having worked in manufacturing and engineering for a decade in the 1990s, I know how great engineers can be at problem solving.


Being good at solving problems isn’t necessarily always a precursor to being able to successfully resolve conflict – unknown to us, we may not always be in possession of all the facts.


During the recent delivery of a public programme, one of our participants (an engineer, coincidentally) approached me about halfway through the preparation of a group conflict scenario telling me that this was “an easy one” and that they would get a deal after only 10 minutes. When the scenario finished 30 minutes later, he (and the rest of the group), emerged frustrated, finding themselves further away from a deal than when they started!


A key part of conflict resolution is about understanding what the other side wants.

Asking great questions (and actively listening to the answers) is important in establishing which conflict resolution method is going to be most appropriate. Is it persuasion/problem solving/negotiating or something else? We’re talking here about good old root cause analysis – something very logic-based people excel at.


Another piece of information we need in this situation is context – without it we’ll find ourselves scrabbling around in the dark. Sure, we might get lucky and stumble across what we need, but what if we don’t?


Some examples of context include:

  • A tight budget might be the pre-cursor to an innovative game-changer

  • An exclusive deal might block an imminent competitive threat

  • Sharing resource might leverage access to a new market

Without context, we’ll be interpreting answers based on our own logic (or narrow view of the world).


Emotional Intelligence can help us to ‘switch the lights on’. If we can better manage the emotions generated in real time, we can leverage a higher degree of openness. Our questions start to create more momentum, extra information flows – we find out the messy stuff that we didn’t know before. The context gives us the backstory – where the other side is coming from. It stands to reason then, that with a fuller picture we’re much more likely to find a better solution to the conflict.


In present times we seem to be in a perpetual state of conflict. We hear media news moguls suggesting that when there’s a conflict ‘people should just sit down round the table and calmly sort it out’. It’s often a bit more complex than that.


What is often overlooked are the nuances within the relationships around the table. To find out as much information as possible, we need to create the right conditions for openness. Only then can we more fully understand what lies behind the other side’s thought process and decision making.


Common sense is great – whether we like it or not though, sometimes not all sense is common.


Sam Macbeth, 7th February 2023



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