Managing Conflict Between You and Your Partner: Separate the Solution from the Problem

Managing Conflict: Separate the Solution from the Problem

The other day, Cindy called Duncan at work.   Cindy asked Duncan to review a letter that she had just written to one of her clients.  Duncan was busy, however, with his own crisis.  He had two deadlines to make in less than an hour.  He didn’t have the time to help Cindy.  What’s more, Duncan feels that Cindy has a tendency to call him in the middle of the day to make requests like this.  “Cindy”, he said, “I need you to stop calling me at work in the middle of the day!”  Needless to say, Cindy felt quite hurt to be treated in this way.

What happened here?  Was Duncan’s request reasonable?

One way to answer this question is to ask another one:  What is the problem that Duncan is trying to solve?

At first, the answer to this question seems obvious.  Duncan is trying to solve the problem of his wife calling him at work all the time.  To solve this problem, he states directly what he wants: “I need to you stop calling me at work…

But wait!  Is that really the problem that Duncan is trying to solve?  Or is that one of many possible solutions to a problem that has not yet been unexpressed?

Unless Cindy has a habit of constantly calling Duncan and interrupting his day, this is probably not the problem that Duncan is trying to solve.  It is more likely that Duncan is trying to solve the problem of meeting his deadlines.  The statement, “I need to you stop calling” is not the problem that Duncan is trying to solve – it’s a solution to a problem that Duncan hasn’t even named!   What’s more, Duncan might not even be aware of what the problem really is.

It is important to separate problems from solutions.  This is not always easy to do.  Duncan’s problem is not that Cindy is calling him and she to stop; his problem is that he has to get his work done by the deadline and doesn’t have time to talk with Cindy right nowDuncan has confused a solution to the problem with the problem itself.  By confusing the solution with the problem, Duncan has cut off other possible solutions to his problem.

So, what’s the answer?  The first step to solving a problem is to identify the problem itself.  When we do this, we will see that there are often many possible solutions to any one problem.  To be sure, one solution to Duncan’s problem of trying to meet his deadlines is to ask Cindy to stop calling him at work.  But this is only one solution.  Is it a good one?  As stated, it probably is not a good solution.  This is because Cindy is feeling hurt and not getting the help that she wants from Duncan.  And Duncan probably wants to help Cindy, right?

So, what are the problems that Duncan is trying to solve?   He actually has many.  They are to:

Get his work done by the deadline, not just today but everyday

  1. Be respectful and not rude to Cindy
  2. Help Cindy with her letter (or whatever else she requests from Duncan)

Having articulated the problem, we can now generate as many possible solutions as we can.  We need to brainstorm.   List as many solutions as possible – and then list the pros and cons of each solution.   Weigh the pros and cons.  Generate more solutions if you can.  Then, well, decide.

When we brainstorm, it is important to consider all types of solutions – good ones, bad ones, conservative ones, efficient ones, crazy ones, pie-in-the-sky ones, stupid ones.  Why consider bad solutions as well as good ones?  There are many reasons.  By figure out why bad solutions are, well, bad, we are led more directly to good solutions.  Bad ideas can lead us to new ideas that we might not have thought through.  And further, sometimes bad ideas really turn out to be good ideas.

The diagram that appears on this page shows the results of a typical brainstorming session.  Now, to be sure, Duncan and Cindy couldn’t do this brainstorming when Cindy called Duncan in the middle of the day.  They would have to do it at home, when they were calm and both ready to talk about and solve the problem.   What did they come up with?

The first three solutions each contained good points and bad points.  One solution to the problem would be for Duncan to ask Cindy not to call him at work anymore.  That, however, would come at a pretty high price!  Alternatively, Duncan could stop his work and talk to Cindy.   This has some good points – Cindy gets her help, and Duncan gets to talk to Cindy, which he enjoys doing. But this doesn’t solve the problem of Duncan getting his work done.

The third solution is a pretty good one – Duncan can tell Cindy that he can’t talk now, but can talk later.  This might just work!  Cindy may, however, still feel rejected, especially if she doesn’t know why Duncan has to delay talking with her.   Remember, Cindy needs some help right now too.

The final solution is even better.  Duncan and Cindy talk it over. Duncan explains the problem of his deadlines.  He explains how much he enjoys talking with Cindy during the day, and that he wants to be able to help her.  They agree that when Duncan is up against a deadline, that he will say, “I’m up against a deadline!  Call you later!”   Cindy understands, and the problem has a good shot at being solved.  Note, however, that even this solution is not perfect.  Cindy will have to wait to talk with Duncan.  What if her problem is time sensitive?   At this point, we either have to live with a good but not perfect solution, or continue to brainstorm for other ideas.  Could Cindy call a friend?

The main point here is that all of this good-natured brainstorming and problem solving would be impossible if Duncan confused his solution for the problem to be solved.  Cindy’s calling Duncan at work wasn’t the problem, and so forbidding Cindy from calling him at work was only a half solution at best – and it caused it own problems.

So often, what we see as the problems we are trying to solve are really solutions to a different, unnamed and unacknowledged problem.    It is only by identifying the actual problems that we are trying to solve that are able to construct genuine solutions to those problems.