The Problem is NOT the Problem

By September 30, 2016Blog

Here is a recurring truth: Often, the problem that you’re dealing with, that you’re struggling with, that you’re having, is not the underlying issue that’s really going on.

The Symptom is Frustration

This is a pattern that I’m seeing with a lot of my colleagues, who complain to me “It’s, it’s just so frustrating, that I do lots of really good work, like this document, I, then this one person totally undermined what I was doing, by going in there and changing things and it’s very frustrating”

I have to stop them mid-rant and ask, “Whoa, chill. Okay, what’s really going on here?”

Too often, people are frustrated with issues like re-work, and duplication of work, and people over-stepping their toes. But eventually, we come to find out that the real issue was a lot of ambiguity about roles and responsibilities. THAT was the underlying issue. The document had nothing to do with it, but we get so wound up over the symptom, we never got to a real solution.

Let’s take a look at 3 steps to figure out what the real problem is, because the problem is not the problem.

Step 1: Initiate a Conversation

So, step number 1 when you’ve got conflict going on to is initiate a conversation. How many times have you seen a galactic feud over email. Over email! No! Stop, stop, chill. Take a breath, walk down the hall. Knock on the door and say, “Hey, how’s it going? What’s going on? I thought we were on the same page about the assignments. Now, I’m seeing a lot of criss-cross going on. I just wanted to come in and talk about what’s going on.”

Step 2: Read Between the Lines

And, when you do that, at that point, you’ve initiated a conversation, good job. Now, I want you to stop, listen, and read between the lines. Because as we said, the problem that you’re dealing with is probably not the problem that’s going on. And so, they might be come back, “Well, um, you forgot to mention policy number 42, and that’s really important, so we need to add that in there,” and then when you’re listening, you start noticing that there’s some agitation and some frustration. You start picking up a little bit more than the actual technical content of the disagreement.

Then you can interject with, “Hey, I’m sensing here that you’re really frustrated and agitated. Is it something I did?”

“No, no, I’m frustrated because we have all these, the, the lack of leadership direction of what we’re supposed to do on this project.”

“Oh, okay, well, you know what? I actually kind of agree with you. Maybe if we had a little bit more clarity on the direction we’re supposed to go, we wouldn’t have a lot of duplication of work, and we wouldn’t feel like we’re thrown around, back and forth.”

THAT conversation might be the beginnings of discovering what’s REALLY going on.

Step 3: Put Yourself in Their Shoes

Sometimes, if you’re reading between the lines, you might take it personally. You might see some folded arms, grumbling, and such. Your immediate reaction might be “Whoa, what’s going on here? I’m reading between the lines, I’m sensing everyone’s out to get me.” And it can be easy to fall into that trap. So once you have the conversation, you read between the lines, then please put yourself in their shoes.

Put yourself in your colleague’s shoes, even in your adversary’s shoes, and start asking yourself, what’s driving them? Why are they pushing back on my, on this new change that we’re trying to put in? Why are they pushing back on my ideas? You might realize that they’re, they’re feeling a little bit threatened, that they’re job might be at stake because of the new merger. Or you might find they’re really frustrated about the new 8:00 standup meeting, which means that they can’t be getting their kids to day care at the right time. Or you might find that there’s some other motivation going on.

The Coach’s Perspective

A lot of times people are frustrated about one topic, and they’ll manifest that frustration in a different context. This is something that I learned a lot in counseling and in coaching: Whenever you’ve had conflict with another party, many times you find that the problem at hand is not the real problem;  there’s something else going on. If you follow these steps, you can discover the true issue, and then the real work can begin.


  • Lani Boothman-Carpenter says:

    This is why I love you Jesse… You speak the words that are in my mind.
    Everyone has values or things that are important to them. As a Resource manager I try to focus on what’s important to my employees. Why? Because things may happen that cause a big blow up of some sorts, as you mentioned an argument about email. but email is not the PROBLEM. It may be that the employee who blows up VALUES trust, or communication or whatever it is and when that value is undermined it sends a Trigger, and when that email was sent it TRIGGERED that thing that is most important to them. Example: I value being listened too and acknowledged. I have a meeting with a group of people explaining point B. Everyone in the meeting nods and agrees. The next day or two people who were in that meeting do the exact opposite to point B and I have a cow… the PROBLEM wasn’t that the did the exact opposite of what we discussed in the meeting, the PROBLEM was that they pushed my trigger. My trigger was that which was being listened too…
    Sorry for my ramble… Jesse you said it more eloquently than I did.

    • jessefewell says:

      Lani, your words made me smile. This happens to all of us; the key is knowing those triggers, so that you can manage them. Kudos for the self awareness.

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