The way we approach problem solving influences the solutions we can see — and are willing to see. When problem solving gets stuck, sometimes the best way to get unstuck isn’t to keep searching for better options or downgrade our expectations, but to flip the problem we’re trying to solve.
Scene: My classroom on the last day of the term, 25 graduate mediation students responding to my request for feedback.
The mood in the room was ugly. With each frustrated remark by one student, the other students’ funk seemed to increase exponentially. A faculty colleague I’d invited to sit in leaned over and whispered, “You have a great deal of patience. I’d have strangled them by now.”
Years ago I co-founded and taught in a graduate program in mediation and applied conflict studies. The curriculum included some online coursework, this at a time when online learning was less common than it is now. While I’d taught online at other institutions, most of my current students had never taken an online course before.
The reactions to online learning were mixed. A few battled with the technology and it got in the way of their best learning. Others really missed an entirely in-person program. Still others found online learning a surprisingly good experience and a complement to their in-person classes.
Over the course of the term, the frustrated and unhappy students became increasingly vocal about their dissatisfaction with the online experience. The funk was reaching a crescendo by the last day of the term, when I had an in-person class with them.
I decided to use the situation as a learning experiment. So I opened class with an invitation: How could the college improve the online learning experience for students?
The students didn’t hold back. As they unloaded their frustrations, the list of replies reflected their intense irritation with the college, the master’s program, and the faculty. They produced a very long list of all the things that the college could do to fix their problems.
It was a depressing list to look at; how could we possibly fix enough of these to make it a better experience?
The brain’s natural “negativity bias”
Humans seem to have a natural tendency to pay more attention to bad news, losses, and problems than to good news, gains, and blessings.
Social scientists theorize that this kind of “selective attention” has evolutionary roots. As Nobel laureate and behavioral economist Daniel Kahneman has pointed out,
Organisms that treat threats as more urgent than opportunities have a better chance to survive and reproduce.
This natural negativity bias influences where we focus our attention, how we reason, and how we make decisions. For instance, when we compare potential losses to potential gains, we tend to give greater weight to avoiding losses. This is known as loss aversion.
We also tend to fall for a type of faulty reasoning known as the sunk cost fallacy, allowing unrecoverable past costs to unduly influence current decisions.
There’s a reason negative political ads generally produce better results in the polls than positive ones (as I am repeatedly reminded by my political science professor husband), even while we complain that we dislike negative campaigning. We may not like those ads, but we’re still influenced by them.
This negativity bias can be compounded by reflexive loops. Reflexive loops occur when we draw a conclusion based on our experiences with someone or something, then in future interactions subconsciously select data that reinforce that belief.
So, back to my students: Was it true that the entire problem rested solely with the college? Or was I getting skewed feedback by students stuck in a reflexive loop fed by a natural negativity bias?
Was there any other way to understand what was going on? And even if there was, what would make the students interested in that perspective?
A second question for the students
After the feedback segment, I turned to the day’s agenda, which focused on a problem-solving framework called Appreciative Inquiry.
When we focus primarily on problems, they become front and center in our universe, sometimes crowding out all else. When we focus on what’s working, we can illuminate possibilities that were otherwise hidden from view.
The students were intrigued by this approach and we spent the day exploring where and when it’s useful and the mechanics of using it.
Near the end of class, I told the students I wanted to return to the online learning issue.
I invited them to think about times when online learning really worked for them — the times it flowed, drew out their best thinking, and really engaged them.
Then I asked, How could the best experiences be replicated in future online courses?
The tone of this discussion was completely different than at the start of class. The energy in the room was electric in the best possible way. Ideas and creativity flowed.
The ideas they generated were also profoundly different than those in the first round. The new list included a substantial number of ways that students themselves could make their own online learning a powerfully effective and engaging experience.
They noticed, too. One student said, Hey, you set us up. I admitted that I had.
Another student said,
The first list has important feedback for the college, but it took all our power away and made it your problem to fix. And it grew into a gripe session that didn’t feel very good. The second list reminds us that we have a lot of control over our own learning and our own experience. It feels good to have some ownership of our own experience. I now realize the problem is not nearly as dire as it seemed this morning.
Balancing the negativity bias in problem-solving conversations
Sometimes, our brains need a little help stretching beyond their natural negativity bias, particularly if they’ve become a little over-committed to their view of things (thanks for nothing, reflexive loops).
That’s where reframing comes in. When we change the way we frame our question or the problem we’re solving, we illuminate solutions that were quite invisible before.
Instead of, How can we strengthen this team’s weaknesses, we might ask, How can we capitalize more on this team’s strengths?
Instead of, How can we stop the constant bickering and undercutting, we might ask, How can we amplify the good interactions?
It’s seductive to dwell on what’s wrong and make it the center of attention. We seem to be so wired for this, we mistakenly believe that the only way to make things better is to focus on and fix the problems. We may even be suspect of alternative approaches, labelling them “Pollyanna-ish.”
It’s not wrong to want to fix problems. How we solve them is a different question entirely. Sometimes the best path (or a supplemental one) is to give voice to the best of what we’re doing and build on it.
This post was originally published in 2006 and expanded in 2019.