What’s Your Problem?
That is Question #1 on the path to doing the impossible. In coaching conversations we ask, “what is the best use of our time together?” Or, “Is there anything in particular you’d like to work on today?” But we all know that we really mean, “what’s the deal?” “What’s not working?” “What's the problem?”
If you have a burning desire to do something amazing, or feel a deep need to make something right, or you’re bored and looking around for something new, you have a problem. And the start of the solution is to name it.
That’s not always easy.
Problems can be overwhelming and tricky. They bask in uncertainty. They hide behind our assumptions. They feed on our insecurity, on the fact that we are only one person and this is a big world. They convince us that we can only make a small dent, so why try at all. Problems are jerks.
And just like your bully older brother, you overcome your problem by taking its power away. By tempering your emotional reaction and using your critical thinking skills to dig down to the root of what’s wrong.
Let’s be clear: I am not at all advocating that you solve your problem by ignoring it (as much as that worked when your brother would not stop poking you on the car ride to Ohio). And I am not advocating that you bury your emotions or pretend things don’t bother you, either.
Your emotions are vital. The strength of your reaction signals the strength of your commitment to solving the issue! But it's important to set the emotional charge aside to give yourself space to do some discovery. Maybe even schedule a time to think or write about what’s bothering you. Set up a business meeting with your problem. Treat it professionally. Just for a few hours refuse to take it personally. Pick a time when you are fresh and separated from the issue. If you struggle with something at work, for example, try Saturday morning when the house is still quiet.
Early morning in a quiet house is my favorite time to interrogate a problem. After coffee. I have a clear head. And I haven’t used up any of my creativity or willpower, yet. My brain is as focused and capable as it ever will be.
Then ask yourself some questions:
What’s alerting me that something needs to change? What is that feeling? Anger. Sadness. Overwhelm. Boredom. Longing. Hope. —Don’t focus on what is causing the feeling just yet. Simply name the feeling.
When is the feeling strongest? What situations generate it the most?
What is my inner voice telling me in those moments? What does my gut have to say?
What is the story I’m making up about why this is taking place? (Hat tip to Brene Brown). —Write that story down!
What about my story is true? —Even made-up stories are built out of facts. Circle or highlight the observed facts.
What about my story is something I assumed? —We all fill in gaps in our knowledge with our assumptions about how the world works. It's what brains do. And it doesn’t mean that we're wrong! Your assumption could be 100% correct. Notice those assumptions so you can challenge them. Circle or highlight the parts of your story that you did not observe but filled in with your understanding of the world or of a particular person, in a different color.
When have I been wrong about those assumptions? —Look at your assumptions and write down at least one time when that assumption was false.
What is my problem? —Look back over everything and name the thing that needs to change.
The other day we were having a conversation about a large organization’s idea to change their promotion process to be more Google-like, requiring employees to self-nominate for promotions and raises. The whole concept upset me. Mere minutes of searching online turned up article after article about how women and minorities are statistically less likely to self-nominate for promotion than white men. And that just made me more upset. They should know better!
So I took my own medicine and I sat down to think about the problem one peaceful evening (with a skinny margarita to fortify me).
What is alerting me that something needs to change? What is that feeling? —Anger, Disbelief, Disappointment.
When is the feeling strongest? What situations generate it the most? —When I found out about the new promotion criteria. When I easily found articles and studies that show it will be bad for women.
What is my inner voice telling me in those moments? What does my gut have to say? —THIS IS BULLSHIT! Why are we still having these conversations?!
What is the story I’m making up about why this is taking place? (Hat tip to Brene Brown). —The leaders of this organization were so quick to make a change that that failed to spend five minutes on Google or take a quick glance through the Harvard Business Review to see if there might just be a downside to their master plan. Once it is in place, the organization is going to be overrun with jerks who self-nominate like crazy and the hard-working, diligent, women, minorities, and men without a mega-competitive streak are going to be left in the dust. Everything is going to go to hell!
What about my story is true? —The leaders were quick to make a decision. Competitive jerks do self-promote more than non-competitive people. It only took a few minutes to discover the downside.
What about my story is something I assumed? —The leaders didn’t do any work to discover the down-side of their plan. Nothing can be done to empower or support the non-competitive, diligent people to encourage them to self-promote at higher frequency.
When have I been wrong about those assumptions? —The leaders are super smart. They make their living weighing the up- and downside of decisions. I make my living empowering people to overcome incredible obstacles.
What is my problem? —We need bigger systems that empower women and minorities so we feel part of the whole and motivated to self-promote our incredible skills (without feeling slimy). It is important to me and to many people I know, but it isn’t pervasive enough. The statistics are real.
My problem is that society needs to change. We need more women and minorities at higher levels in organizations. And to get them there, we need more women and minorities at higher levels in organizations... This is always my problem. A reoccurring theme that surges when I deal with large organizations, especially in government or the military. I have been dealing with this for a while now.
And I am motivated to be part of the solution. My strong emotional reaction tells me so.
The thing you name might be simple and small and easily fixed. Great! It also might be enormous and overwhelming and incredibly difficult to fix. And that’s great, too! Don’t let the size or scale of your problem overwhelm you. Every solution starts with a single step. And you’re taking it. Name Your Problem. And you’re already on your way!
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