The Problem with Problem-Solving

What is here now, when there is no problem to solve? Loch Kelly

Recently I’ve begun my morning meditation by asking myself this question, offered by Loch Kelly in a three-minute practice . It’s had a dramatic effect on my ability to “drop in”—to let go of the noise and chatter in my head. Simply asking the question allows me to “arrive,” almost magically, as I begin my morning meditation. And, when the chatter ramps up, as it is wont to do, I ask the question again and, again, the noise subsides.

While this one question may have different effects on everyone who tries the practice, its power has helped me to become more aware of how deeply we are wired to be problem-solvers and how that limits us in an increasingly complex world.

When I work with leaders, especially when our focus is on becoming better coaches, the single hardest thing for most of them is to step back from immediately fixing or problem-solving. Developing the capacity to listen without fixing is a continuous, intentional practice. It is not surprising to me that this is the case. After more than twelve years of working as a coach it still requires intention for me—and I can still be pulled into fixing mode.

Here’s the thing. Being problem-solvers got us far, as individuals and as a species. Being told you’re a good problem-solver is a compliment and knowing you’ve figured something out can make you feel pretty good about yourself. We can resolve things, move projects forward, help people. It’s what we’ve spent most of our lives being trained to do and to be. What could be bad about that?

To answer that question, I want to draw on a critical distinction—the difference between complicated and complex. Operating in complexity means we’re in the terrain of the unpredictable. Solutions are emergent; we navigate and experiment our way towards them and things are likely to shift as we go along. Complicated means we are traveling more “plannable” and predictable territory—and problem-solving can be exactly the right approach. In our VUCA (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous) reality, more and more of what we face as leaders and what the people around us are facing falls into the domain of complexity.

When I share this distinction with my clients (which I almost always do—it’s that useful,) the most profound moment is often when they truly get that, in complexity, problems can’t be “solved” and that much of their time as leaders is spent in the complex domain. Realizing that our problem-solving brains can become an obstacle to thriving—and potentially even to surviving (more on that later) can be both liberating and terrifying. It’s freeing to know you’re not supposed to have the answer—in fact, you can’t. And, at the same time, it can be terrifying to realize that you need new ways of dealing with the challenges you face. If complexity means that the problem-solving mind I’ve cultivated for my whole life is not what I need to thrive in this new reality, what happens next? Going a level deeper still, the question becomes “Who am I?” since, for many of us, our identity is grounded in our skills as problem-solvers.

Back to my morning meditation. The moment when I ask myself the question “What is here when there is no problem to solve?” is the beginning of the answer to both the question of what to do next and the question of who I am. I relax into a sense of expansiveness, spaciousness. I can become more patient with not knowing. Once I can allow myself to not know, I am able to listen and to be present—to myself, to my family and to my clients. I don’t try to “solve” my problems or jump in with solutions to theirs. I know that we can navigate this together. I can ask a question that allows me to operate in complexity with greater ease: “What’s next?”

My coach training was led by Doug Silsbee, whose final book was Presence-Based Leadership. (For more on Doug and his work, here’s my tribute to him.) Doug’s claim was that Presence is the meta-capacity of leadership. I find myself re-arriving at this conclusion over and over in my work with leaders. I also realize that presence requires training and continued practice. As Doug suggested, throughout his body of work, the path towards being comfortable with not knowing and being able to genuinely thrive in complexity is through Presence.

This is why my work continues to focus on supporting my clients as they develop the capacity to be present—and continuing to develop this capacity in myself. It’s also why I spent the last year studying to be a somatic coach, working with embodiment. The work required to embrace complexity, to be present, to genuinely release the belief that we should have all the answers to all problems, is not exclusively head learning. Left to their own devices, our heads will continue to engage with problems as we’ve been taught in school and at work throughout our lives. To change a habit this deep, we need to access and re-train our whole self.

We can recognize the sensations we feel, the shapes our bodies assume, the thoughts we have when we are gearing up for conventional problem-solving. And we can learn to pause and, decide if that way of being fits the situation we’re in—and, if not, we can learn to shift. We can take a breath, note the sense of urgency, acknowledge it, shift the way we are holding our body, and respond differently. We are not forcing ourselves to shift, we’re noticing one pattern and choosing a different one. We can genuinely appreciate—and draw on—our problem-solving minds and bodies when they are what’s needed and choose a different way of being when we are facing complexity.

As Amanda Blake, another teacher and coach whose work is grounded in embodiment says: “Awareness creates choice; practice creates capacity.” The more we practice this shift, the more available it becomes to us, until, after perhaps thousands of repetitions, it becomes the way we are in the world. Luckily, we have lots of opportunities to practice!

The challenges we are collectively facing are profound and highly complex. I believe that learning to shift from problem-solving to being truly present in the complexity of those challenges is critical capacity for our society and world. For me, the kind of practice and awareness I’ve described here is the most accessible, though not necessarily easy, path towards presence—and with it surviving and even thriving in the complexity that surrounds us.

2019: Reflections and Recommendations

Cacti and succulents at Huntington Gardens–one of my favorite days of 2019.

Here are a few of my favorite books, podcasts and even an album that I’ve appreciated this year, along with some general reflections as we close out one year and begin another.

Looking Back…And Ahead

I watch, along with so many of those around me, with deep concern as the world faces ever greater challenges, increasingly aware that our political structures and leaders are not going to be able to adequately address those challenges. I see the profound inequality and injustice across the globe and within my own country and city. I am frightened by the daily updates about climate change–the speed and ferocity of its effects. And so I remind myself, regularly, of the words of Ruth Messinger, former CEO of one of my favorite organizations, the American Jewish World Service. She calls on us to not “retreat into the convenience of being overwhelmed.”

Last year one of my favorite books was Meg Wheatley’s Who Do We Choose to Be? In it, Wheatley introduces the idea of being, in the midst of these exceptionally difficult and potentially irredeemable times, a Warrior for the Human Spirit. If you have not yet read her book or listened to interviews with her, I start my 2019 post with a reminder that her book still sits atop my list and is one I revisit often.

And, even as my faith in the future of the world is often shaken and I notice the urge to retreat, I continue to see and experience examples of people doing work that matters, who are Warriors for the Human Spirit.I have been privileged and honored this year to work with clients who are, among other things, enabling East African youth to create meaningful work, bringing traditional beekeeping methods to rural Chinese farmers to create sustainable livelihoods and a healthier world, and producing soap products with ingredients that each have a story behind them that inspires and moves.

I am sure that the coming year, too, will continue to test our resolve. The urge to retreat will be great and the need to resist it even greater. Find the ways that you, too, can be a Warrior for the Human Spirit through your actions–be they direct or in support of those doing work that you admire. I urge you to get involved, not stay on the sidelines. The upcoming year will require that of all of us!

My Learning Focus: Embodiment, Embodiment, Embodiment

Last January I began studying at the Strozzi Institute for Embodied Leadership, completing (yet another!) coach training program. You can read about my experiences at Strozzi here. Rather than learning with my head, at Strozzi I learned to learn with my whole being. It was not easy–and I am even more convinced that working with embodiment is one of the most powerful access points for navigating the increasing complexity we are facing, enabling us to become more present, engaged and alive. I hope to continue to share what I learn as I continue this journey and am excited to be bringing more and more of this into my work.

Books I Loved 

Some years I have a favorite book that I can’t stop talking about. This was one of those years. I’ve given copies of Jennifer Garvey Berger’s Unlocking Leadership Mindtraps: How to Thrive in Complexity to my kids and clients–and urged just about everyone I know to read it. Jennifer has written a short, engaging and highly accessible book. She describes five mindtraps that can get in the way of our ability to be effective leaders (in all aspects of our lives) and ways to “unlock” them–through powerful questions and simple practices. Jennifer is steeped in knowledge about adult development and complexity and demonstrates, in this book, her ability to synthesize complex content and research in a way that can be easily understood and immediately useful.

This year I read and re-read Pema Chodron’s Living Beautifully With Uncertainty and Change. Reading Pema Chodron is one of the things that keeps me sane and hopeful even as she, too, is unflinching in her view of reality. This is also a short book full of the wisdom that Pema has acquired in her 80+ years on the planet. It’s kind of a “greatest hits” and yet goes deep. If you are new to Pema’s writing, this is a good place to begin. If you’re a regular reader but have missed this one, it’s worth it.

A book that has accompanied me this year, and become part of my regular meditation practice is The Book of Awakening: Having the Life You Want by Being Present to the Life You Have by the poet Mark Nepo. Nepo’s reflections, generally less than a page, including a reflection practice, are perfect as a way to center before I turn on a timer.  It’s almost always as if Nepo read my mind and offered me just what I needed that day. Nepo’s book is about 20 years old. A newer edition is soon to be published and the current edition is available used. It’s a gem.

Podcasts and Audio Resources

I believe that podcasts are one of the greatest inventions of the century. I walk and listen for many hours a week and feel better-informed and happier as a result (and get lots of steps, too.) I’m still an avid listener of the New York Times The Daily–it’s my main source of in-depth coverage of topical issues. In addition, I’ve discovered Throughline and Codeswitch, both NPR podcasts. The first is a history podcast, often digging into the aspects of history that we should know but don’t. Codeswitch deals with race and identify and has definitely helped me to gain greater insight and perspective on topics I do not know enough about. The New York Times’ series 1619 was one of the best things I heard this year, so if you missed it, take the time to listen–I was shocked at how much history we never learned.

I was introduced to Hurry Slowly this year and have, in turn, introduced friends and clients to it as well. It includes some of the most thoughtful and helpful conversations I’ve heard this year. Jocelyn Glei, who interviews people I’m almost always glad to learn about and learn from, also shares her own reflections–and I enjoy those as well. In her words: “Hurry Slowly is a podcast about how you can be more productive, creative, and resilient through the simple act of slowing down.” Start anywhere–there are several seasons to draw on.

My guilty pleasure is Esther Perel’s Where Should We Begin? in which we get to listen in on couples therapy session and hear her commentary along the way. It’s a fascinating window into people. She just started a new podcast How’s Work? that applies the same methodology to work issues. I’ve only listened to one episode and enjoyed it. I can pretend there’s a professional value in listening, but I’m not totally sure.

Tara Brach’s website, which includes access to her guided meditations, is an incredible gift. I’ve never used a meditation app, so I can’t make any comparisons. Tara’s teachings and meditations work well for me and she is my go-to when I know that my level of distraction means that just putting on a timer may not be the wisest way to meditate. It’s especially helpful when I travel and don’t have the comfort of my regular space. What I especially like is that I can find a meditation that is exactly the length I need as there are so many choices.

The last recommendation in the “listening” category is an album that my husband and I (whose tastes are not always aligned) can’t stop listening to–Lana Del Rey’s “Norman F**ing Rockwell.” Here’s a song from it. I cook with it, walk with it, drink coffee to it, and read to it–and still am not tired of it. I’m not exactly sure what genre she occupies–it’s hard to pin down–pop, indie–not sure.

And with that–wishing you a good end of the year and beginning of the new one. Happy reading, listening and learning!

The Doing and Being of Difficult Conversations

Years ago, I bought—and read—every book I could find about challenging conversations. Difficult Conversations, Crucial Conversations, and Fierce Conversations—all of them. Each added to my understanding of how to have (and why not to avoid) the conversations that we least want to have. I attended several workshops that focused on shifting difficult conversations into productive ones. The most intensive of these workshops was three days long and involved meticulously analyzing a single conversation that we knew we needed to have. We focused on reframing our thinking and mindset and precisely examined the impact of the words we chose for the conversation. At the end of the three days, I was able to have that conversation in a way that shifted the relationship I was working to improve. At the same time, it was painstaking and I wondered if that particular process could be consistently replicated.

Over the years, I began to design and conduct workshops on the topic of difficult conversations—including this as a core topic in any leadership program I offer. In my workshops I drew most heavily from Sheila Sheen’s (and her co-authors’) Difficult Conversations, and from her second book, Thanks for the Feedback. More recently, I added powerful ideas garnered from two wonderful books by Diane Musho Hamilton, The Zen of You and Me and Everything is Workable.

My commitment to improving—and supporting others’ improvements—at having hard-to-have conversations is premised in the belief that our ability to speak candidly, openly and with compassion allows us to create better relationships at work. And, if we can create those stronger, more open, more honest relationships, we can work more productively, with greater ease and get better results. The same is true in our personal lives, as well.

The most important thing I took away from these authors and from the work I had done was the importance of shifting from a mindset of “it’s about them” to “I’m a contributor to what is occurring.” In some way, small or large, we are missing part of the story and have a blind spot about our contribution in challenging relationships.

I also realized that to successfully transform a conversation from just plain difficult to productive and constructive, we needed to genuinely be able to hear the other person—to listen deeply, see their perspective, and shift our own, accordingly. It’s not about one person being right and the other wrong. It’s simply that we each see the world through our own eyes and, by definition, our view is limited. Bringing this awareness into a challenging conversation is essential–and not easy. It goes against our default mode of “listening to win” rather than “listening to learn.”*

Over the past few years, as I expanded my coaching toolkit to include embodied leadership, I began to rethink the way I approached, and taught, difficult conversations. Embodied leadership asks us to consciously bring our whole soma (body) and not just our heads into our work and personal lives/relationships. Wouldn’t this then require us to bring our whole soma into difficult conversations? If we are to genuinely shift our frame of mind to allow ourselves to see multiple perspectives and to respond rather than react to the things that trigger our defenses, then we need to think not only about the “doing” of the conversation, but also, and perhaps more importantly, the “being”–and that’s where the body can be an enormous resource.

Until I started doing somatic work, my preparation for a difficult conversation was almost entirely focused on the words I would use. What questions would I ask? How would I frame the conversation? What would I do to ensure that I was communicating that I, too, was a contributor and that together we were looking for a new way of seeing? I took the same approach with my clients. Both in coaching and in workshops most of the energy was on planning the “what” or the “doing” of the conversation. Using our heads.

If we expand and include the soma then we arrive at the “being” of a conversation. We attend not only to what we say—but also to how we show up energetically, physically and emotionally. The preparation we need to do to show up in a state that is open, receptive, and present is quite different from the planning of the “doing.” It’s not surprising that I missed this. In general, we have learned to be better at—and put more emphasis on—doing than being.

Growing our leadership capacity and developing as humans requires that we create a better balance. I’ve written about the distinction between complex and complicated—it is relevant here as well. When things are unpredictable or unknowable we are in the domain of complexity—and our job in complexity is to navigate, not to know where exactly we’re going (we simply can’t know.) By definition, a conversation—especially a challenging one—is complex–unpredictable. Two of the most powerful tools in complexity are openness and curiosity which come not only from our heads, but from our whole self.

When we prepare to be present and curious, then we can be prepared for the response that we didn’t expect to hear. We can navigate in the moment when the other person does not conform to our predetermined script. And, let’s be honest, no one aside from the imaginary people in our minds will ever adhere to the predetermined scripts we write. If we are unprepared for the complexity of the conversation, wed to our plan, then the instant the other person veers from our script, we are thrown—we lose center and presence. The conversation is far less likely to move forward in a meaningful or satisfying way for either person.

When we focus primarily on the doing of the conversation then we may know, intellectually, that we are contributors, but we are still likely to be hooked into responding defensively. Seeing multiple perspectives is not what we were wired to do—being reactive when we feel threatened is a more “natural” response—even if it is unhelpful. Despite our best intentions to not be hooked and defensive, it takes time and practice to respond differently. When we focus exclusively on what we are doing and don’t give equal weight to our being we aren’t resourced to be fully present and capable of navigating the complexity inherent in a challenging conversation.

So, what does this look like in practice?

It’s about putting as much, and often more, focus on the question, “How do I want to be in this conversation?” as on “What do I want to say?”  I do this by taking a moment and finding center—the process I use to center (described here) is one I learned over six years ago and has been an anchor for me ever since. Once centered, I ask myself the following questions:

  • What qualities do I want to bring to the conversation?
  • How do I want to show up?
  • How will I find that way of being before I begin the conversation? (This may involve a commitment to center before starting the conversation.)
  • How will I return to that way of being if I feel triggered during the conversation?

This process does not offer a magic bullet—it’s a practice. Like all practices, it requires repetition and reinforcement. It can be immediately helpful and when it becomes part of our way of operating it can positively impact every aspect of our professional and personal lives. Once it is ingrained in our being, and we can access this process rather than react defensively, even the challenging conversations that are not initiated by us, the ones we unexpectedly find ourselves in, will no longer be as difficult or daunting.

As I’ve embodied this practice, I’ve come to see “difficult conversation” as simply conversations. This simple, and yet not so simple shift, enables me to be curious, attentive, and open-minded while growing my relationships.

Here’s an example:

I worked with a client who needed to speak with a colleague who, based on all the data available to her, was not delivering on an important commitment. This was not the first time she’d had this experience with her colleague.

At the start of the session, we centered. After centering, and becoming more open and present, she noticed that she had never broached this topic with her colleague. Her colleague was unaware of how his actions, knowing or unknowingly, affected her. It was from this reflection and realization that my client was able to sense that her limited perspective of “this is how he’s disappointing me” only told half the story. My client then consciously set the intention to remain open and curious so that she could genuinely, and without bias, discover where things were breaking down. She made a commitment, from center, to hear his perspective, to learn more about her own contribution, and to figure out together how to move forward.

The preparation for her discussion went as follows: centering and setting intention, recognition that she is also a contributor, and committing to find center before, during, and after her conversation. She would also need to remind herself that her colleague would not follow her predetermined script and that she would not be able to control the ultimate outcome of that conversation. She felt ready to enter the conversation with genuine openness and curiosity, prepared to be surprised.

And another example:

I recently worked with a client who had to let staff go for the first time in their organization’s history. As I worked with the leadership team to prepare for these conversations, we brought the dimension of being into the process. The leaders reflected on how they wanted to be in the conversation to support the people to whom they were delivering hard news—and to support the people who were remaining. In this case, even when the words had to be quite precise, there was an opportunity to attend to how they could use the practices of centering and the emphasis on bringing their whole self into the conversation to convey the genuine compassion that they felt.

And…

Sometimes we are called upon simply to listen, to be present for another person. It is often all that is being asked of us. Our work begins and ends with the question of how we want to be. If we simply allow ourselves to be present and caring listeners, then that is enough. Our need to do or say the “right” thing or to fix a problem is often the thing that gets in the way of what is most important.

And finally…

The next time you find yourself carefully planning your words, take a step back and make sure you are also attending to how you want to be in order to best serve the intent of the conversation. And then, do that again, and again, and again.

We become what we practice.**

* See Jennifer Garvey Berger’s Unlocking Leadership Mindtraps–my favorite book of the past several years for more on this distinction (and so much more than that!!)

** Gratitude to Richard Strozzi Heckler and the teachers at the Strozzi Institute for helping me to experience the power of practice.

My series of posts exploring what I’m learning as I become a somatic coach begins here. You can also find a post here that explores ways to think about practice or, to be more precise, “micropractices” that might make this just a little easier to incorporate into an already busy life.