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March 2015: “What’s Really Going on Here?” Thinking Broader and Deeper About a Problem

March 1, 2015

We live in a world where attention gets bestowed on those who have answers, whether or not the answers make sense.

 

Parents feel pressured to explain, solve and fix.  So do politicians, physicians, chiefs of police, business owners, religious leaders, terrorists, and media talk show hosts.  That pressure often leads to superficial conclusions about complex issues.  The allure of “getting it right” too easily produces premature or downright dangerous decisions.

 

I’ve noticed that some intelligent and thoughtful leaders cannot tolerate the anguish of complexity. They might be smart and successful, yet unwise.

 

One way to check the tendency towards easy answers and quick fixes is to ask, whenever a problem persists, “What’s really going on here?”  This question opens our curiosity pores, jolting us from a concluding to an exploring mindset.

 

The result is expanded thinking. More of the picture becomes visible.  Discovering context and root issues generates new ideas.  The underlying forces that keep a problem in place become the focus.  Here are three examples:

 

Example 1:  Coaching a “Know-it-all”

 

Sal, the long-time head of a professional firm, reported that, Patrick, one of the firm’s most productive partners, is “uncoachable.”

 

“Every time I raise questions or make suggestions he gives me a ‘been there, done that’ type of response, as if there’s nothing he can learn.  Patrick always has explanations and answers for everything.  He exhibits no curiosity whatsoever, and consistently avoids looking at himself.”

 

Superficial responses:  Easy answers, quick fixes and blame

 

“Patrick apparently thinks he’s better than everyone else.”

 

“I think his success has gone to his head.”

 

“Patrick has forgotten where he comes from.  He needs a wake-up call.”

 

Deeper thinking:  Questions based on, “What’s really going on here?”

 

“How has the topic of Patrick’s coachability been handled, addressed or avoided?  How does my reactivity to Patrick influence our interactions?”

 

“How persistently have I tried to build a strong connection with Patrick, to understand his life in a bigger context, and to learn more about what he’s up against?”

 

“What do I expect from him as a partner in our firm?  Have I taken clear positions with him?”

 

Example 2:  Cocaine addiction in a “good” family

 

Brad and Melissa have been married for 28 years, and live in a prosperous suburb of Cleveland.  Brad owns a small but successful accounting practice. Melissa manages a high-end jewelry store.  Both are active in community projects, sit on non-profit boards and contribute to progressive social causes.

 

The couple has three children in their twenties:  Alyssa, Anthony and Andrew.  Alyssa graduated with honors from a prestigious college, attended graduate school and recently landed a job on Wall Street.  Anthony and Andrew dropped out of college.  Both have struggled to find and keep jobs.  Brad and Melissa recently discovered that their sons are cocaine addicts.

 

Superficial responses:  Easy answers, quick fixes and blame

 

“Anthony and Andrew got caught up in a bad crowd – they need a fresh start in a new environment.”

 

“I think they took a negative lesson from their parents’ partying.”

 

“The dope is everywhere – it starts with the dealers.  We need to clean up our society before we lose an entire generation…”

 

Deeper thinking:  Questions based on, “What’s really going on here?”

 

“What factors contribute to addiction?”

 

“What adjectives would describe the emotional and relationship patterns in this family?  How has addiction been handled across the generations?  How is it being handled now?”

 

“To what extent is the addiction of these two young men a symptom of forces that are bigger and harder to see?  Is their addiction more a problem, or more a symptom?”

 

Example 3:  Responding to terrorism

 

Samara, a Manhattan-based marketing consultant, listens to political pundits on a regular basis.  She has been “angered and disturbed” by public accounts of beheadings and immolations perpetrated by extremist Islamic groups.  A vocal critic of the US president, Samara considers a range of beliefs and positions she might hold in response to terrorist extremism:

 

Superficial responses:  Easy answers, quick fixes and blame

 

“We (the US military) should carpet-bomb ISIS, and send an unmistakable message that the international community will not tolerate their barbarism, those bastards!”

 

“The problem is, we have a weak president and a weak Congress.  We need to act decisively…”

“Islam is evil.  They want to destroy our way of life.”

 

Deeper thinking:  Questions based on, “What’s really going on here?”

 

“What factors promote terrorist groups everywhere?  What conditions are necessary for the successful recruitment of terrorists?  Can patterns be observed?”

 

“What resources are required by terrorists, and how do terrorists gain access to those resources?”

 

“How much do I really understand about Islam?  How many Islamic leaders have I talked to?  What reliable texts have I read?  What percentage of Muslims are extremists?”

 

Thinking vs. reacting

 

Even though humans often act like reptiles, many have the capacity to suspend reactivity and think more deeply and broadly in the face of persistent problems.  Whether a problem occurs in a business, a family or on a global scale, better thinking can be achieved by asking, “What’s really going on here?”

 

Understanding a problem produces more reliable solutions.

 

 

3 Responses to “March 2015: “What’s Really Going on Here?” Thinking Broader and Deeper About a Problem”

  1. March 03, 2015 at 4:28 pm, Justin Copie said:

    Great post, especially the last paragraph ”Even though humans often act like reptiles, many have the capacity to suspend reactivity and think more deeply and broadly in the face of persistent problems.”

    Such a great reminder and reference to our reptilian urgency

  2. March 12, 2015 at 12:32 am, Randy Burkard said:

    I used to be all about “easy answers, quick fixes”. Since taking John’s leadership course I have tried very hard not to be this type of leader. Although I sometimes forget and fall back into my bad habits. I think being conscious makes me a better leader. Thanks.

  3. April 05, 2015 at 1:53 pm, Jim Newman said:

    John,

    In your work with me about the topic of coaching, I remember that you described the Brian functions as the reptilian, the mamilian and the neo cortex. The first is the instinctual reaction such as flight or flee, the second is the need to nurture or make things better, and the third is the real thinking brain.

    As leaders we must overcome the instinctual power of the first two and focus on the real work of answering the questions of ” what is really going on here?”

    Good stuff,

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