A TOOL KIT FOR SOLVING LIFE’S PROBLEMS
The Chinese written language is marvelously colorful. Their words are illustrated by little sketches or diagrams. The Chinese character for danger is a sketch of a scary scene, and their word for opportunity is naturally a more hopeful drawing. When these two characters are put on top of one another, it is the Chinese word for crisis, or turning point. It means a situation that could go either way.
Which way a situation goes for us depends on whether we focus on the danger (seeing it in the foreground), or on the opportunity which the situation presents (seeing the danger in the background). All problem-solving starts by focusing on the danger, and then sees more and more the opportunity. This theme of focusing attention is key to all twelve of the problem-solving techniques below. Each tool in this kit contrasts two ways to focus your attention. The first one isn’t wrong. In fact we need to do that one at the start to understand the danger, the problem. The trick is to shift this picture of the problem more and more to the background as we bring into focus its solution.
- External Event vs. Internal Interpretation. Of course we first need to survey the facts to figure out what happened. All too often we settle on the first explanation that makes sense to us, especially if it’s what we expected: “I thought so!” But after studying the facts, and making our conclusions, we need to keep on thinking, and ask, “Is this really what happened? Would everyone agree with me, or could I be missing something here? What does all this mean? Why did it happen this way?” The key to this and all other solutions is to pause and give yourself a moment to think.
- Emotions vs. Actions. We need to get past the feelings others are dumping on us, and the feelings we feel we must dump back onto them. Emotions will soon pass. More importantly, what has the other person actually done, and in response, what can we do to make ourselves and the other person feel better? We do that by just accepting the feelings. Emotions aren’t good or bad, right or wrong, they just are. It’s a free country. People have a right to their emotions, and to choose whether, when and how they will express them. So do we. It’s often better for us to express our feelings later, when we’re around people with whom we are more safe. Reacting quickly from instinct and emotion prevents a full interpretation of the facts. It also skips the all-important moment where we choose what attitude to take toward the situation: irritation or gratitude? a closed mind or open? pessimistic or optimistic? Like a smile or a frown on our faces, the attitudes in our minds are self-fulfilling prophecies of what we will perceive to result from what happened.
- Assumption vs. Education (prejudice vs. curiosity). If we assume the worst about other people, it will bring out the worst in us, which in turn brings out the worst in them. I think this a part of what Jesus might have been thinking when he said, “By the standards you judge others, you will be judged.” Instead, it helps to nurture an attitude of curiosity, a lifestyle of educating away our pre-judging of others (prejudice). Every relationship problem is an opportunity to get to know someone better, and the attitudes we look for and show to others determine most of what we find in them.
- Past vs. Present and Future. When we focus on things we can change (the present and future), wisdom tells us to study the past (which we can’t change) only long enough to learn from it, and then move on. What can we learn? Some good questions to ask as we look back on the past might be: What did I lack? Lose? Do wrong? Neglect to do? Whose help did I need? What was I expecting? What did I ask for, and who did I ask? How had I been helping them? Have I asked my friends and family what they think I can learn from my past in this matter?
- Fear vs. Faith (Despair vs. Hope). Dread and worry are contagious, and they produce anxiety, insomnia, high blood pressure, and relationships strained by distrust. You usually see what you’re looking for, betrayal, rejection and failure. What do the news media, terrorists, litigious attorneys, and too much of what we see on television (the shows, ads and movies) all have in common? They are selling us FEAR. We react by spending big money to feel safe, and as always, our hearts follow this money, paying more attention to fear. Fear to me is like poison ivy: treating the itches of insecurity with the scratching purchases of external security devices provides temporary relief, but only serves to spread the virus. Take the medicine of faith. Turn the worries of “what if” into the wonders of “so what if”. Figure out how illness, accident and loss are opportunities to build character, relationships, and hope through faith in self, others and God.
- Problem vs. Solutions. A recovering alcoholic writes in AA’s “big book”: “I am amazed at my magnifying mind. Whatever I think about seems to grow. For example, when I focus on the problem, the problem increases. But when I focus on the solution, the solution increases.” In a very real way, our attention is a fertilizer we throw out constantly, that grows whatever it falls on. Likewise, the first and as I see it the foremost of Stephen Covey’s Seven Habits of Highly Successful People is to Begin with the End in Mind. With any problem, we need to imagine what we’d like to see come out of the problem, and then use the forces and resources at hand to make it happen. All the rest of these twelve problem-solving tools are applications of this one.
- Outcome vs. Process. We get frustrated when we push very hard for an outcome that like so many, becomes more difficult the harder we push for it. Most of the examples are in our close relationships, when we want the other person to do what we ask, admit we’re right, or at least recognize, “You’ve got a point there.” It’s amazing how often this back-fires, and how our performance pressure and close-mindedness load up the rejection guns our loved ones have trained on us. If the outcome is how others react, the process we need to focus on is how we approach them or the situation. I have been taught, “Do the best you can, just do the next right thing, and leave the results to God.” It works when I work it.
- Control vs. Acceptance. This is the wonderful lesson of the serenity prayer: “God grant me the serenity to accept what I cannot change, the courage the change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” That wisdom teaches we find serenity by accepting the people and situations around us, including our health, and that we gain courage by changing ourselves (our attitudes, habits and choices), including our healthier lifestyles. It helps us accept things if we believe that God or some higher power has set things up to unfold the way they do, in order to help us grow up, and to give good people the chance to teach others better ways to deal with painful situations.
- Hurt vs. Healing (Avenge vs. Forgive). Focusing on physical or emotional pain will lead us to symptomatic treatment and sedatives. Beyond mere symptom relief, true healing requires time, protection, and disinfectant. In our relationships, the disinfectant is forgiveness. Trust will need to be both earned and given before a close working relationship can be restored. But forgiveness of self and the other is a free, unearned gift we can give all at once to (God,) the other person and to ourselves. We forgive to take away the offender’s power to hurt us any further by simply being happy or successful. Forgiveness requires solving what’s been called a “math problem”, a problem with our to’s and for’s: we learn to think of others NOT as doing things to us, to hurt us, but rather as doing things for themselves. Assuming more benign motives for the actions of others works way better to reduce stress than presuming malicious intent.
- Self-centered vs. relationship-centered (building bridges vs. walls). Like laziness, self-centeredness is a strain of universal folly (the original sin virus) which infects us all every day. We see it overcoming most older people like kudzu as they get too absorbed in their medical symptoms and their bodily functions. Whether our problem seems to us mostly public and interpersonal or all personal and private, the solutions will always involve improved relationships. Thinking of others is often one of the kindest things we can do for ourselves. Nowhere is this more true than in marriage, where in some weird metaphysical way, the two do become one flesh: whatever affects one physically or emotionally inevitably affects the other too.
- Competition vs. Co-operation (Win-lose vs. Win-win). Both of these attitudes are contagious: one produces a winner, a loser, and a more strained or distant relationship. The other produces two winners and a smoother, closer relationship. Covey’s book wisely teaches us in relationship problems to seek solutions that will benefit both parties. Win-win solutions are not just sacrificial compromises where both parties give up some of what they wanted. They are also synergistic creations that provide both parties with things they didn’t realize they needed until they “seek first to understand, then to be understood.” One approach produces personal vindication (“So, I was right!”). The other brings mutual validation (“I think we both understand each other better now.”)
- Explanation vs. Inspiration (the blame game, what caused it vs. what good can come out of it, the quest for the best). Animals can only react by instinct. But humans can rise above the motivational level of survival and pleasure to imagine finding something good in the problem at hand, and even building something good out of that problem. What good things? Character assets such as faith, hope, love, joy, peace, wisdom, patience, self-discipline. Better personal relationships that result from seeking them, building them, and bringing this person with better character to them. And a better relationship with our maker, our higher power.
Dr. Paul Schmidt is a psychologist life coach you can reach at [email protected], (502) 633-2860.