Problem Solving with the Windows Down

Aside from those in the Upper Midwest afflicted by Winter Storm Zeus, much of the rest of the country is enjoying the springtime ritual of driving with their windows down.  There may be no better way to unwind from work than to drive home on a nice spring day; soaking in all the breezes and scents; arm hanging out the window; waving to the other drivers as they pass. 

Good problem solving starts in much the same way.  While most of our newsletters discuss the value of rigorous process and solid discipline, today we’re going to talk about the human element of problem solving, and “keeping the windows down.”

Whether you are in a management role or simply in a position of influence, the chances are high that you will soon be meeting with someone to discuss how to solve a problem.  Such meetings can result in people feeling defensive, especially if the process or problem is one that other person created. 

In a threatened state, humans revert to either the “fight” or “flight” response.  In either case, the windows go up.  They stop sharing valuable information.  And, while it may look like logical, reasonable responses are being passed back and forth, the glass keeps anything from truly getting through.

As a leader, it is your job to “keep the windows down.”  The key is asking the right questions.  Before your next meeting, plan your questions ahead of time using the tips below. 

  1. Phrase questions in terms of positives:  Rather than ask “Why is the process broken?” which sounds accusatory and will cause the windows to go up.  Try asking “How do you think the process could be even better?” which acknowledges the positives in the current situation, while keeping others focused on improvement.
  2. Ask lots of “non-questions”:  Examples include, “Tell me more about that.”  “Help me understand…”  “Give me your perspective on…”  While direct questions can sometimes assume an answer, these phrases open up expansive dialogue to uncover more data points with which to feed the problem solving process.
  3. Don’t ask questions when you already know the answer:  Asking “Tell me what happened with the client yesterday?” and then following up with, “Well I heard that X, Y and Z occurred” makes others feel manipulated.  Instead, start by saying, “I know I only have one perspective, but I want you to clarify for me.”  Then tell them what you know.  You acknowledge that there are multiple ways to see the issue, and all are worth exploring.

Trust us.  Planning your questions using these tips will be like a breath of fresh, spring air.  Over the past thirty years, we have seen these techniques open windows to problem solving in organizations large and small. 






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