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A Quick Way to Solve a Problem

Identifying the building blocks of a solution and converting them into a plan.

Mohamed Hassan, Public Domain Pictures
Source: Mohamed Hassan, Public Domain Pictures

On my NPR-San Francisco show, listeners would call in with a problem and, in a few minutes, I had to come up with an approach that we both felt good about.

Over the years, I refined the approach and use it today with my clients, friends, and myself. It may be of value to you.

Of course, my approach varies with the person and the situation, but this is typical::

I say, “Tell me about the problem.” I listen for building blocks of a solution: non-negotiables, desirables, especially anomalies: something unusual. I also listen or watch for personal characteristics that might be relevant: an easy laugh, exceptional verbal facility, passion around an issue, etc. I incorporate those into the suggested solution. That makes it custom to the person and, if the person will be competing against others, gives them an edge.

If the person doesn’t do well enough with my open-ended query, I ask closed-end questions, usually offering two or three choices.

When I’ve gleaned enough building blocks, I come up with an idea and ask, “What do you like and not like about that idea?”

I try to address their dislikes about the idea in a Version 2.0. I keep repeating that until s/he has no objections.

As a crosscheck, I then ask, “What does that plan score: from 1 (terrible) to 10 (Wonderful?) If it’s less than a 10, I ask, “What keeps it from being a 10?” I then try to address their concern in the next version of the plan.

When we feel the plan is as good as we’re likely to make it, I ask, “How likely are you to implement it?” If they say, not likely, I ask why. That can provide another clue to improving the idea or unearth psychological or practical barriers to implementing it. We discuss those and conclude when we agree they’ll at least try out a low-risk version of the idea.

Here are examples:

A career example

The client or caller: I don’t know what career to pursue.

Me: What do you know that you want and don’t want in your career?

C/C: I want to help people.

Me: With regard to mental health, physical health, life’s practical problems? Something else?

C/C: Maybe in the schools.

Me: Directly with kids?

C/C: No. I don’t think I can control a classroom.

Me: Regular-ed or special-ed kids?

C/C: Maybe special.

Me: Which feels best: school psychologist, guidance counselor, or tutor?

C/C: Maybe guidance counselor, like at a college.

Me: Should you google “guidance counselor” “academic advisor” “community college?

C/C: Yes.

Me: What does that plan score from 1 to 10, with 10 being best?

CC: About an 8.

Me: What keeps it from being a 10?

CC: I don’t want to go back for a graduate degree.

Me: It’s possible that at some private schools or colleges, your bachelor’s may be enough.

C/C: That sounds good.

Me: Now what does it score.?

C/C: A 9

Me: How do you feel about doing that googling and if it still sounds good, having a conversation with a counselor at a nearby college or two?

C/C: Good.

Me: Should we bet that you would or wouldn't do it?

C/C 50:50

Me: What keeps it from being 90/10?

C/C: I'm uncomfortable imposing on people.

Me: If someone asked you what your career was like, would you object?

C/C: No.

Me: Then, it's karmically fine for you to ask now as long as you promise yourself that when you're in the career and someone wants career advice, you'll give it. Is that too airy-fairy?

C/C. No, it makes sense. I'll try to keep that in mind.

A relationship example

C/C: I'd like to meet a special someone.

Me: What's worked and not worked for you in the past?

C/C: Not much. They lie on the apps. My friends have set me up, but none of those worked out. I don't like bars or concerts. I've taken classes that guys are likely to take but nothing's ever come of it.

Me: Might it be a matter of how well you're using those methods?

C/C: Maybe.

Me: Do you do the basics: Listen as much as talk, err on the side of positivity, look good but not like you're trying too hard, not seeming desperate nor too indifferent to being in a relationship?

C/C: Maybe I talk too much.

Me: Do you think it's worth trying to listen more, perhaps asking more follow-up questions?

C/C: I think so.

Me: What does your intuition tell you is the best method or two to find your partner?

C.C. A class, maybe on investing. Also, I guess I should try the apps again.

Me: Yes, people aren't always as honest as they should be on dating apps. Do your picture and profile present a reasonable picture of who you are?

C.C. I think so.

Me: Might you want to ask a trusted friend or relative what they think?

C.C. I like that.

Me: Would you bet that you'd actually follow through on the plan?

C.C. (laughing) Actually not.

Me: I appreciate the honesty. Why do you think you wouldn't?

C/C I'm not sure I'm that motivated. Part of me enjoys being single.

Me: So, are you saying you like the plan but the time isn't yet right but you'll keep it in mind for when you decide you're more ready to meet someone?

C/C: Yes.

I read this aloud on YouTube.