When the problem is not knowing the problem

We’ve all worked with someone and felt like nothing was working. No reply to emails, no answer to questions, no consideration of suggestions. What did you do? If you did something, it was probably to highlight the problem and discuss a prospective solution. And kudos to you, because confronting the problem can often make life more negotiable than ignoring it.

But wouldn’t it be great if there were a way to make life even more negotiable? Well, luckily there is: by discussing the problem and not just highlighting it. It’s a subtle point, but note that the approach I mentioned involved highlighting the problem; the discussion only started when we came to the solution. And that’s exactly how most of us deal with irritating colleagues, if we deal with them at all—by highlighting the problem, which we assume to be the real problem, then immediately discussing a way to solve it.

“You take forever to respond to my emails! You never respond to my questions! Have you ever heard my suggestions? Now what do you think we should do about it?”

The issue is that the problem gets noted (by you) but never discussed. And if the problem never gets discussed, it’s possible you got it wrong. And if you got the problem wrong, well, then the solution will probably be wrong too.

An example may help: Early in the morning, you often write important, time-sensitive emails to your colleague in another office. Your colleague, that slothful waste of space, never seems to reply until late in the day, well after the reply would’ve done you any good.

The standard approach: “You take forever to respond to my emails! Can you start responding within four hours?” To which your colleague, reluctant to fuel the conflict further, may well agree.

The issue: You assumed the issue was sloth, when in fact it was your coworker’s flexible schedule. She comes in at 11 and stays till 8. Having noted rather than discussed the problem, her schedule could come up but probably won’t. Instead, when she arrives at 11, she’ll probably race to reply to the emails you sent her at 7:30, fearful of the four-hour deadline. Thus racing, the quality of her information will probably suffer, as will the quality of whatever you intend to do with it.

A better approach: “I’ve noticed that I send several important emails about 7:30 am each day, and you reply about 4:30 pm. Can we talk about why?”

By posing that question rather than pointing at the obvious problem, you’ve suddenly made it much more likely to hear about the flex-work. “Oh, it’s because of my flexible schedule!” she might say. At which point, the two of you could work out a much more creative solution. Like you holding off on your emails until 11 am, then expecting a reply within the hour.

Here’s the bottom line: We all think negotiations are about finding the right solution. Negotiations are really about getting the problem right. If you do that, a workable solution will often appear out of nowhere—and it probably won’t be the solution you devised in the first place. If you don’t do that, well, then your initial solution will probably get implemented, which will rarely be optimal for anyone.

I leave you with a quote from no lesser of a mind than Einstein: “The formulation of a problem is often far more essential than its solution, which may be merely a matter of mathematical or experimental skill.”


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