Resolving to separate the person from the problem

Many of us have resolved to be nicer to others in 2016, probably for ethical reasons. Yet, since this is a negotiations blog, I might also note that being nice to others—in the form of “separating the people from the problem”—also carries some important practical benefits.

In many situations—but especially when dealing with incompetent service providers—being nice is an important step in making life negotiable. Allow me to illustrate with a recent example, which of course is utterly fictional.

Two adults and two children under four years old, driving from Christmas in Wisconsin to their home in Maryland, find themselves hungry in the middle of the Ohio Turnpike. With five hours of blizzard-laced crying behind them and eight to go, they lurch into a rest stop featuring Hardees and an even less impressive Italian joint. Finding nothing of interest to his three-year old daughter at Hardees, the father defaults to Italian. And there, standing behind the register, is a lanky lad just a few years older than his daughter—let’s call him Joey—sporting rivers of sweat meandering around a shockingly Ohio-shaped hickey, undoubtedly made within the hour. In the absence of a “How can I help you?” the father orders a piece of pizza.

“That’ll take 20 minutes,” mutters Joey. Knowing that every minute has to count on a cross-country trek with the kids, the father rescinds his pizza order and asks about the breadsticks. “5 minutes,” says Joey, to which the father begrudgingly agrees. Twenty minutes later, guess who doesn’t have his breadsticks, guess whose daughter is getting antsy, and guess what service provider is being dressed down by several other irate patrons? The father asks again about the breadsticks. “Uh, that’ll take 5 minutes,” repeats Joey robotically, apparently unaware that he made the exact same statement 20 minutes ago. The father, blood pressure on the rise, explains as much. Joey’s response: “There’s nothing I can do. There’s only two of us working here.”

Now, however faulty the staffing models at this restaurant, this was not the response the father wanted to hear. Not at all. The question was how to respond. The most tempting option: a caustic monologue about Joey’s time management skills, combined or even integrated with the world’s best hickey joke. Substantially less tempting: separating the person from the problem by focusing on the problem that Joey and he were collectively facing. And here lies the rub with the advice to separate the people and problem: it’s most useful when it’s most difficult.

Having resolved to nicer to the incompetent Joey’s in his life, however, the father gave it a try. Now, it must be admitted that he wasn’t entirely successful. While he resisted the obvious hickey jokes, his comments weren’t entirely free of recriminations either. Nevertheless, he at least attempted to be problem-focused by explaining the difficulty the situation created for his family, asking for his money back, and requesting a free cookie to pacify his restive daughter. “There’s nothing I can do,” responded Joey, incoherently, to this specific request. “I just mentioned a few things,” said the father, which seemed to trip some circuit breaker deep in Joey’s brain, as he marched into the kitchen and received approval for the request.

Now, the father’s approach was not perfect (he continues to work on it in 2016), and $3.99 plus a cookie cannot compensate for 20 minutes more driving, after 13 hours on the road. But it does reveal the importance of at least trying to focus on the problem when faced with an incompetent counterpart. Though never easy, the easiest way, the father finds, is to forcibly prevent himself from saying “you.” So “You’re wrong” becomes “That’s wrong.” “You’re an idiot” becomes “The issue with that statement is,” etc. This small change in language tends to focus both parties on the problem rather than each other, especially when contrasted with other irate patrons dropping plenty of “you’s.” Note, however, that none of the revised statements amounts to conceding in the face of incompetent behavior; they just focus attention on the problem rather than the idi…eh hem, person behind them.

I hope this post offers additional inspiration for your resolutions in 2016; it did for the father!

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