October 04, 2010
"Keeping the Problem, the Problem"
The Rev. Dr. Scott Stoner
I had the chance to spend this past weekend consulting with a church in northern Wisconsin that has been experiencing some low grade conflict amongst its members. To their credit, they wanted to proactively deal with the conflict, long before it became something serious. I shared two related ideas this weekend that the congregation really embraced. I share them with you because I think they are applicable to all of our lives, especially in our relationships with others. The first idea is to always remember that “the problem is the problem.” The second idea, which is directly related to the first, is to avoid making a particular person the “problem.”
Here’s an example of what this means. A few years ago my wife and I were canoeing on a large, remote lake in Canada. A strong thunderstorm arose without warning and we suddenly found ourselves in danger in the middle of a very large lake. We needed to get to shore immediately. In the midst of the stress that arose from this “problem” of the storm, we turned on each other. I yelled at her, “you’re not paddling hard enough,” and she yelled back, “it was your idea to come out here today--I told you a storm might be coming.” The thunderstorm was the problem in this case, but for a few moments, we had turned on each other, making the other person the problem, which of course only delayed our getting to shore more quickly as we fought in the middle of the lake!!
This same dynamic can come up in the workplace. Imagine a small business is experiencing slumping sales and everyone is anxious. The top leadership meets and decides that the sales people are the problem and blame their lack of effort for the downturn in sales. They call a meeting with the sales team to tell them this. The sales team has their own meeting first and they discuss how the real cause of the slumping sales is the leadership team. They blame the leadership team for their lack of foresight and vision to anticipate market conditions and develop a new strategy for the company. As you can imagine, the meeting is held and anger from both sides erupts and no fruitful dialog or plan for addressing the problem occurs. Why? Because both sides had already decided that the other side was the problem. They made a person, or a group of persons the problem, instead of making the problem, declining sales, the problem. It was more important to be “right” and to blame, than to solve the problem.
Here’s an another example, this time from family life. A teenager’s grades are slipping. The teenager blames the school and it’s bad teachers. Mother blames the teen for not trying harder and father blames mother for not making sure their teen is studying harder. The tension rises along with everyones’ voices, and nothing is resolved. What needs to happen instead, is for the the parents and teen to unite around their common concern about the problem (declining grades) so that they can work together to solve the problem. When we make a “person” the problem then division ensues and there is no united focus on solving the problem.
Making a person to blame for a problem leads to division and polarization. Keeping the focus on the problem as the problem provides the opportunity to unite and work together to resolve the issue at hand, proving that it is more important to be helpful, than to be right.