Thinking Alone

By Chris Chittenden

One of the hallmark catchphrases in organisations is "Don't come to me with problems, come to me with solutions!". Such an approach may appear to save a manager's valuable time in regard to becoming embroiled in problem resolution conversations but it may also have some unwanted consequences.

One of the possible outcomes of this management approach is that people may always feel they have to have the answers before they open their mouths to speak. This is generated by an underlying assumption that they will damage their identity if they do not know the answer and as a result people then go to great lengths to cover up their lack of knowledge. This leads to the development of mistrust between individuals as people try to ensure their identity does not suffer and may even damage others as a result.

Already having an answer also sets up a combative framework when people engage in conversations to resolve issues. Think about a meeting where everyone has come along with "the answer". What happens when those answers differ? No longer is the conversation just about resolving the issue, people's identities are now at stake. When people have come to an answer in isolation, they are far more likely to see the solution as an extension of themselves. The result is that they are likely to defend their solution in an aggressive way and the conversation becomes one of winning or losing.

What this ultimately means is that the best solutions will probably not be found and the idea of developing synergetic solutions is never given the chance to emerge.

We contend that human beings are losing the art of thinking together. Thinking together must happen in conversation and involves a number of factors including being able to respect others and their opinions, putting our own judgments on hold during the conversation, listening effectively to what others say and putting forward ideas that help build a solution. Underpinning all of this is a willingness not to confuse the relationship between our knowledge and our identity. We cannot know everything, so why do we think that others expect us to.

At Talking About, we encourage and support our clients to have the conversations that allow the best solutions to emerge - this might mean looking at the questions you ask when you see a "person with a problem" comes your way. The next time you start to get the impression that someone is coming to you with a "problem, not a solution" look for a way to learn more about how things might be seen from that person's perspective and then share your perspective. This might just be the start of something new - perhaps even a more synergetic solution.

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© 2002 Chris Chittenden