Challenging problems often demand that we push beyond familiar options and explore new territory in order to solve them. But leaving the familiar behind is uncomfortable and sometimes unpleasant. When we can stop ourselves from hurrying out of the “groan zone” and doing the important work we need to do there, our problem solving is usually more effective and enduring.
A farmer headed down a bumpy, pothole-ridden dirt road with a cart filled to the brim with freshly picked apples.
Passing a gentleman headed in the other direction, he asked, “How long will it take me to get to market headed this way?”
The other fellow looked at the cart full of apples, then down at the dirt road. “An hour if you go slowly,” he replied, “and all day if you go fast.”
When people disagree, problem solving is like carting apples
Disagreement is a divergent state — we differ on how to resolve a conflict or solve a problem. Agreement is a convergent state — we come together on a resolution or solution.
Any mediator will tell you that the space between the two is valuable territory. And yet, we often hurry through it, pushing our way to agreement as though the speed of getting there is what matters most.
Sometimes we hurry through disagreements in the name of efficiency. But it isn’t efficient at all if you spend more time later picking up those metaphoric apples. Have you ever thought a conflict problem was resolved, only to find out later that what appeared to be agreement wasn’t? So many apples spilling everywhere.
We also hurry through disagreements because they’re uncomfortable.
Problem solving in the groan zone
That tricky, messy, uncomfortable, and sometimes unpleasant space is the Groan Zone, a term coined by author Sam Kaner to describe the tricky part of wrestling with a difficult problem.
The Groan Zone has three particular challenges:
- It’s uncomfortable there, so we want to hurry through or past it. Unfortunately, hurrying straight to the familiar solutions and digging in just sends us back into the Groan Zone again — we have to circle back because the familiar solutions are part of what’s keeping us stuck.
- It can be unpleasant there, so we may shut down, flee, get obstinate, or lash out. Tricky, unknown territory brings out the human messiness of confict, but hurrying through leaves important work undone.
- It can feel hopeless there as we navigate all the messiness and circle repeatedly back to the old familiar solutions we’ve already rejected multiple times. Fortunately, knowing how to navigate the Groan Zone effectively is a great cure for hopelessness.
Can anything make the conflict Groan Zone more palatable?
Yes! Here are some things you can do to keep the Groan Zone discomfort to a minimum:
- Acknowledge the Groan Zone’s existence. It’s surprising how powerful this tactic is. Acknowledgement normalizes it, reminding you there’s nothing particularly atypical going on here. I say to my mediation clients, You know what you’re experiencing right now? It’s called the Groan Zone. Let me tell you about it…
- Chunk it down. Break a big list of problems into smaller, bite-sized chunks. Take one problem at a time, even working through the list over several conversations. A “difficult conversation” is rarely a single conversation.
- Take breaks. There’s no rule that once in the Groan Zone, you have to stay glued to your seat ’til you’re done. In fact, if you’re finding it testy in there, pause the conversation. Take a break. Go for a walk to clear your mind and boost your creativity.
- Give yourselves permission to screw up. Agree in advance that you each get a few passes for ill-chosen words. Agree in advance that the first pass through the Groan Zone will be considered just a sh**ty first draft.
And the best thing to do is…
…Deepen your knowledge of and skill with problem solving strategies and tactics that help you make the most of your time in the Groan Zone. When you know you have the tools to handle it, the Groan Zone becomes considerably less disagreeable.
And developing the habit of staying in the Groan Zone long enough to do the good work — well, that becomes considerably more palatable too.