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.

Mood Check

[Note to readers: Mood Check is the second in a series of posts I’m writing as I study at the Strozzi Institute for Embodied Leadership. My hope is that these posts spark curiosity and encourage you to explore even more. The first one introduced somatics and the way that I am learning to understand what somatic leadership means.]

Every day, several times a day, during the workshops at the Strozzi Institute, we did a mood check. All twenty-eight of us quickly shared our mood at the start and end of the day and after any practice that might have changed our moods. While I’ve used mood checks as a facilitator before, I had never done them this consistently. I got more curious about this practice–why it was so foundations and how it could be brought into our daily lives.

In a previous course I attended, one of the Strozzi instructors shared a two-part question about mood that I use frequently in my coaching:

  • What is your mood?
  • What’s telling you this is your mood?

I’ve discovered that when I ask these two, related, questions of myself or my clients, we naturally notice our bodily sensations. Turns out that we name moods based on what our senses are telling us. A mood check, then, is an embodied practice. It gives as a moment to ask ourselves: “What is happening right now? And how am I making that assessment?”

So, why is that useful? First, if you are convinced, as I am, that “somatic literacy” is a good and important thing, the beginning of being able to shift, this is a way to start developing that literacy. It’s not something that we are likely to have learned growing up so we need to educate ourselves. Simply noticing and naming what is happening to us at the level of sensation and how a collection of sensations creates a mood has been powerful for me. I am observing my somatic literacy grow–the range of moods I name expands, the granular awareness of what makes up that mood is more accessible to me–I feel less awkward with the exercise.

Once you name a mood, a few things become possible. First, you have more choice. Given this mood, what actions do or don’t make sense? Is this the right time for a challenging conversation? If I don’t stop to check in with myself, I am much more likely to plow through reflexively than act consciously, reflectively. I am more likely to drift “below the line” in the language of the 15 Commitments of Conscious Leadership. (For more on that concept, here’s the link to one of my favorite short videos of all time.)

As part of our practice at the Strozzi Institute, we would do a mood check and then, right away, engage in an activity that was physically vigorous for a couple of minutes. We’d then do a second mood check. The words we chose to describe our moods would, more often than not, change. Becoming aware of mood gives you a chance to shift or generate moods—and, as this exercise demonstrated—rather quickly. A quick walk, a tiny bit of physical activity, a few breaths–any of these can be enough. My personal go-to between coaching sessions practice is either to take a 3-5-minute walk with the dogs or, during this past rainy Los Angeles winter, doing one of the online Zumba routines I’ve discovered. The latter, especially the Bollywood ones, have turned into a rapid, fun way to shift my mood (and no one has to see me!)

Another benefit of a mood check is that it’s a way to expand your emotional vocabulary. When I lead this process in a group, I “forbid” the moods “good” and “tired” and insist that people dig deeper, search more. I do this for myself as well. Naming emotions is a powerful way to build one’s emotional intelligence—in Daniel Goleman’s model it falls in the quadrant of self-awareness. And, it allows for a granular, ground-level self-awareness that supports our capacity to move from awareness to self-regulation—which is the next quadrant of emotional intelligence.

Doing regular mood checks isn’t difficult—like most simple practices, the hardest part (at least for me) is remembering. An app like Mindjogger can be helpful. Program it to ask: “What’s my mood?” several times a day. After a few days, keep up the practice either with the reminder of without. If you do keep a reminder, change it up so that you don’t just ignore it when you see it. If you’re a parent, consider adding it to your conversations with your kids. Encourage creativity, make it a game—it can be a good vocabulary builder–and do it yourself as well. If you add the second question—”What’s telling you this is your mood?” you can build your somatic literacy and help your kids develop it at an earlier age as well. Two birds with one stone!

Our moods are a window into our soma—our whole self. Our capacity to show up, day after day, and face the increasingly complex challenges of leadership (and life) can grow as we learn to tap into the wisdom within us. A practice like a mood check can help us in more profound ways than we might expect of something so simple.

So, start practicing. And, as you practice, notice what happens. How does naming your mood support you? What does it give you access to? Be patient. At Strozzi we were often reminded that it takes 300 practices to begin to embody new practices and 3000 to do so fully. So, it might take time and repetition before the learning emerges.

And there’s more…

Since returning from my sessions at Strozzi I’ve started all calls (especially group ones) with a mood check. I’m discovering that it’s the fastest way to create connections between people when time is limited and the group is too big for doing longer check-ins. The other day I was meeting with a group and we did a mood check. It was our first session together. The mood check revealed that everyone was distracted, stressed and overwhelmed (and this was AFTER a centering practice!!) Turns out the following week was a major marketing event and this group was almost entirely marketing people. I hadn’t known that in advance, so the mood check gave me data that allowed me to gauge the group within a few seconds. We collectively decided to reschedule the session—it wasn’t going to serve anyone to be on this particular call in this particular moment. That decision was made and a new date found within less than five minutes. The group was appreciative–they felt heard. So—if you lead a team, the mood check is also a source of data for you and can allow you to assess where the group is in a given moment and how you, as a leader can best move forward.

Ready for more? Here’s the next in the series.

Learning from Head to Toe: Embodying Leadership

Photo: Petaluma, 2019

I arrived home last Monday morning from eight days at the Strozzi Institute for Embodied Leadership in Petaluma, California after completing the first two parts of a year-long program in Somatic Coaching. “What’s that?” is likely to be the question in your head right now. This post is all about providing a clear and meaningful response to that question—and, in doing so, share why I’m doing this work, why I think it is important—and hopefully interest you enough to continue to read more as I chronicle my journey!

If you’ve read my most recent posts (especially here and here,) you will have noticed an emphasis on paying attention to and working with small practices that are “embodied.” These practices require that we use our whole self, from head to toe, to effect the changes we desire in our lives and our leadership.  We learn to embody what we most want to be and become.

The “head to toe” part of this has become more and more important to me in my own life and in my work with leaders. I am increasingly convinced that one of the main reasons that change doesn’t stick, or feels hard, is that we typically try to do the work only in our heads. Many of my clients begin a coaching engagement telling me they are self-aware, which is often true. And yet, it’s not enough. They are likely to be seeking coaching because that self-awareness isn’t resulting in them fully showing up in ways that will best serve them as leaders–especially leaders who must navigate increasing levels of complexity.

Some of us might go a step further: “I get that I need to practice and that being aware is not enough.” So, we practice adopting new mindsets, new thoughts, new coaching or conversational strategies. And we are still not getting the results we seek.

Here’s where the “head to toe” part comes in. Our ways of being exist in our “somas”—a word that describes our mind and body as ONE. We have patterned or conditioned responses that live in our bodies that we adopted, in many cases, when we were quite young. These patterns were created in response to the conditions of our lives—and they served us well. In the words of one of my teachers, they were “hard-earned.” For the most part, these patterns and responses are invisible until we pay attention in new ways. When we try to shift our minds and ignore the patterns in our bodies, turns out it’s really hard. And, our bodies are probably not going to come along for the ride unless we consciously bring them along. Our patterns are strongly rooted and powerful enough to hold us back from the changes our minds want to make. So, even as our heads desire change, our bodies continue to operate in the ways they have organized themselves until now. Our bodies remain committed to our conditioned ways of being.

Let me share an example. A simple one.

Because you’re self-aware, you’ve realized that it is hard for you to say no. You take on too much, delegate too little, and end up overwhelmed and overloaded. So, you commit to saying no more. Once in a while you do, but not much changes. It’s still really hard. If you were working from head to toe, you’d spend time noticing that your whole body is “in on” this challenge. You recognize that this is a pattern that goes WAY back, so it’s pretty firmly within you. When you slow down and pay attention closely, you might notice that you have very specific sensations and ways of holding yourself when requests are made of you—all of which are oriented towards being uneasy with a “no” and conspire towards a “yes.” [Note: This is just one example. Perhaps you struggle more with whole-hearted “yesses” or with being able to ask for help.]

So, your brain is struggling to say “no,” unaware that the your body is perfectly organized to say “yes” and be fearful of the “no.” With further investigation, you can get granular about the way “yes” operates in your body, better understand how THAT shape supported you in your life. You can begin to explore and practice a new shape (literally—a new physical way of being and responding) that better supports your ability to choose your “yesses” and “nos.” Maybe you need to move back, breathe downwards, “ground” yourself. You practice that movement again and again (and again and again) and, over time, you notice that this new shape is beginning to become available to you even as the stakes get higher and the situations more pressured. It’s simple but not easy. A whole lot of repetitions are required to be able to access this new shape in high stakes, high pressured situations—so you also practice being a little more patient with yourself in the learning process. You are literally rewiring your nervous system.

My intention in studying somatic coaching—and specifically the system developed by Richard Strozzi Heckler–is two-fold. I want to become more skillful in supporting my clients in making the changes they most want to make to become the leaders they most want to be. The tools I’m learning are some of the most effective I’ve encountered to help translate self-awareness into consistent new behaviors. Just as importantly, I am studying for my own sake—so that I am able to do the same. I am learning to return to center more easily when I am feeling pressures—internal and external. I am learning to expand into the possibilities I see for myself—while allowing space for the people I are most about to do the same. That balance has always been one of my challenges and somatic work has been revelatory for me. Thus, my excitement about sharing it with others.

This is just the start of my journey. My plan is to write throughout the year and share some of what I’m learning. My teacher, Doug Silsbee, wrote not long before he died that “teaching is learning in public.” That phrase has stuck with me as it so well describes what I am doing when I write. These pieces are most definitely an act of “learning in public.” I hope you find value in them. (The next in the series can be found here.)