A subscriber emailed me with the question, “How do I know when I’ve figured out the real problem or issue?” It’s a question worth unpacking and I have an alternative question to propose.
It’s reasonable and good to want to land on the “right” issues needing resolution, whether we’re helping others sort out disagreement or trying to sort things out on our own. We want to spend less energy on low-importance peripheral issues and more on issues at the heart of whatever’s going on.
Here’s a way to approach it:
First, stay out of the bramble patch
“What’s the real issue?” and its variants contain a sticky speculation, revealed by the way people often emphasize one particular word: How do I help them solve the real issue? How do we determine the real problem?
To paraphrase Pete Seeger, real is a rabbit in a bramble patch.
It’s hard to see. You can’t lay your hands on it. All you can do is circle around and say, ‘It’s in there somewhere.’
And it’s sticky because it implies that someone is trying to hide the “real” problem. Or that they’re self-unaware and can’t see their own “real” problem. Or that we believe we are in a better position to see the “real” issue than they are.
These are risky places from which to operate. They distract from our quest to get to the heart of the matter.
If we believe they’re trying to hide the “real” problem, we will be tempted to “get them to come clean.” Tricks, manipulations, or interrogations, even when well-intended, feel lousy to the recipient. They tend to complicate things, not make things better.
If we believe they are self-unaware, trying to “get them to see the truth” looks and feels arrogant to others. Who are we to say they’re self-unaware? There are so many reasons people don’t say out loud all that they might; why treat them as though they lack capacity?
Feeling sure we can see a problem they can’t (or won’t admit to) is fraught with problems too. So many mediation students have said to me, “But I can see their problem so clearly. Why can’t I just tell them what it is and get on with things?” Why indeed: Trying to impose our version of the “real” issue on others is about our own ego and a desire to show our brilliance, instead about what is relevant to them at this moment in time. We can do better.
For reasons like these, I recommend a different question:
When we focus on “meaningful” instead of “real,” we side-step the pitfalls and quagmires. And focusing on what’s meaningful to those involved — and to their lives — helps keep our white-knight egoism in check. It acknowledges their capacity and agency, so crucial for effective conflict resolution.
Second, peel the onion
Uncovering the meaningful problem(s) to be resolved is like peeling an onion. Too little peeling and we haven’t really gotten beyond the skin on the surface. Too much peeling and we’ve discarded a lot of perfectly good onion.
So we peel, layer by layer, with patience, until we and they find something meaningful to work on together. Sometimes it happens quickly. Sometimes it takes a while. The timeline is unpredictable. There may be multiple meaningful problems to work on.
Third, noodle over it
The way to peel the onion is to be curious. To wonder out loud. To not run with our speculations before checking them out. To ask good questions born of curiosity. As Seth Godin phrased so perfectly, to noodle over it:
There is no perfect question to help with noodling over a problem because a question that’s perfect and helpful in one difficult conversation falls flat in another. There is one question, though, that has proved useful often enough that I am deeply in love with it:
If you solve this problem, what would it do for you?
Alternatively, if you’re working on finding your own meaningful issue, ask, If we solve this problem, what would it do for us?
When you think you’ve uncovered a meaningful issue to work on, use this question to test whether or not you’ve peeled the onion enough. It’ll help you get closer to the heart of the matter and it will help you avoid solving the wrong problem.
I hope you will fall in love with this question too.