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.

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