Identify the problem

You’re hiking up a steep hill with a friend. Immediately you hear a scream from the crest’s direction — a child is falling toward you. Without a thought, you both leap towards the child, grab her, and take her to a safe spot. Before you can recover, you hear another child crying for help. You and your friend leap toward the crying child to rescue him as well. Then another struggling child drops into sight… and another…and another. The two of you can barely keep up. Suddenly, you see your friend running up the hill, apparently leaving you alone. You ask, ‘Where the heck are you going?’. She answers, ‘I need to go up there to tackle the dude who’s throwing all these kids down the hill.’”

This old parable has been told in many different ways. It underscores a central issue we often face: In life, we get caught in a response cycle. We focus on the emergency. We answer questions posed and quickly put out fires. We stay close to what we know, fixing one problem after another, but we never go up there to repair the systems that caused the issues. Manufacturing workers address efficiency issues, call centers reps log customer complaints, and doctors treat chronic illnesses. But efficiency issues, customer complaints, and illnesses can be prevented! So why do our efforts slant so heavily towards reaction instead of prevention? And what are we going to do to change our focus?

Three ideas:

Self-Awareness. People have varying degrees of comfort engaging in the unknown, so it’s critical that one understands his or her own preferred coping mechanisms. Research has identified three major ways to cope with stressors or novel situations. These are appraisal focused (i.e. strategies that help perceive the stress in a less negative way), problem-focused (strategies that help reduce the source of stress), and emotional focused (i.e., doing positive or distracting things to feel better). Although none of these strategies is superior, understanding the preferred “go-to” approach and leveraging it in a way to understand root-cause issues, will helps one to understand how to truly solve problems.

Decenter. Inferences guide our perceptions (i.e. a way of regarding, understanding, or interpreting something, a mental impression). Are our perceptions reality? Hardly. We all have a unique perspective that is garnered by our field of vision, which usually contains “limited information” and relies on visual cues. This, however, narrows our scope of understanding…our reality. The key is to decenter. Decentering moves one from being locked into a constant state of self-centered perception. Decentering is not the same as empathy, is beyond mere empathy, and, less emotional and more cognitive. Instead of merely feeling someone’s pain, it aims to understand underlying, root-cause issues. The benefit, of course, is acting with accuracy.

Ask the Right Questions. When confronted with perpetual emergencies. Pause. Take a step back. Ask questions to surface new information. Rely on primary and secondary sources to fill in gaps. A best-selling book on navigating high-stakes situations, Crucial Conversations teaches that powerful dialogue begins with the questions “what” and “how,” rather than “why.” Questions like, “What would you like to see happen?” and “What does that look like for you?” help distinguish concrete needs and goals, while “why” questions tend to elicit defensive responses. Seek to uncover is what others are seeing but you are not. “What are you seeing that I am not seeing? How do we move forward?