When faced with a problem, we often ask ourselves or others, “What should we do?” It’s not a bad question at all, but research suggests a better question for prompting more creative solutions.
A family of four visits a three-Michelin-star restaurant in Modena, Italy. The father orders a popular dish for the entire family; the dish contains snails, raw potatoes, coffee, nuts, and black truffle.
The maître d’ notices that the two children look a bit stricken at the prospect of “snails under the earth.” He asks the youngest boy what he would like to have. The youngest replies, “Pizza!”
Unfortunately, pizza is not on the menu at this kind of restaurant. What should the maître d’ do? By asking the boy what he wanted, he’d inadvertently created a dilemma for himself.
It’s common to ask, “what should we do” when we’re problem-solving. In ethical dilemmas it’s pretty much the default question. When we turn to our colleagues, loved ones, doctors, therapists and others for advice, what do we generally ask? “What should I do?”
It’s not a bad question. In ethical dilemmas, it’s an important question. “Should,” after all, reminds us that there may be moral imperatives that cannot be ignored in the solution.
The trouble with should, though, is that it places a mental constraint on our option-generating. “Should” focuses our thinking narrowly on options that align with obligation, duty, correctness, and the like.
To relax those constraints, there’s a great question to ask before getting to should:
In 2018 research that explored ways to grapple successfully with difficult “right vs right” ethical dilemmas, researchers found that beginning a problem-solving conversation with “what could we do?” changes the trajectory of the discussion, prompting the kind of divergent thinking that’s a hallmark of creativity.
The researchers suggested that contemplating “could” solutions before “should” solutions allows people to generate options they otherwise would not have considered. They went on to say,
Since reading about that research a few years ago, I’ve experimented with substituting the “could” questions in place of the “should” questions, both with my clients and in problem-solving in my own life. I find it freeing and clients are often pleasantly surprised by the word change. As one coaching clients said to me recently, “What could I do? Huh. Now that’s an interesting question.”
The restaurant story came from one of the study’s authors. Fortunately for the young boys in the family of four, the maître d’ had a creative “could” mindset.
He telephoned the city’s best pizzeria and soon after, a taxi arrived with pizza for the boys.