Thursday, August 6, 2015

The Paradoxical Approach to Problem Solving

In a recent blog post "Alter the Interaction, Not the Other Person," I describe a couple caught up in a self-fulfilling negative cycle, and how to interrupt that particular dynamic with paradoxical problem solving. 

Below are key components of this approach, drawn from work at Stanford's Mental Research Institute (The Tactics of Change, Fisch, Weakland, and Segal).

The Importance of Reframing
  • Sometimes "more of the same" increases resistance to change; e.g., a colleague who resents you telling her what she should do will not be easily influenced by your telling her she should not resent your comments. Your attempted solution is part of the problem, creating more of the same dynamic.
  • Far more effective is to lift yourself out of the situation and examine all behaviors, including the usual attempted solution, as problems to be solved.
  • Reality is only what a sufficient number of people agree is real. Paradoxical problem-solving redefines or "reframes" reality in a way that's compatible with the worldview of each person involved.
  • Paradoxical problem solving depends on the element of the unexpected. In the example above, asking your colleague what she thinks should be done is far more likely to be a source of influence than telling her what she should do.
  • Reframing a situation actually changes your perception of it. You're finding ways to influence the other person more effectively; at the same time you're being influenced as you come to see the world from the other's perspective.

Underlying Assumptions
  • It isn't necessary to find fault.
  • Nobody has to win; nobody has to lose. (People who come from win/lose positions are polarized ("Either I do what I want, or I'll have to do what you want"), which blocks the possibility of an unanticipated, creative option.
  • If what you're doing isn't working, do something else.

Some Paradoxical Change Strategies

  • Less of the Same: When a pattern maintains the status quo instead of bringing about change, systematically discontinue it, interrupt it, do something different.
  • Making the Covert Overt: Covert behavior has enormous power to maintain and reinforce an adversary relationship, and people are reluctant to talk about conflict openly, even when the problem is apparent. Often this is because we're not aware of how our own behavior contributes to the situation. Use this tactic only if you're willing to hear about and examine your own behavior.  :-) 
  • The Tai Chi Method (also called Prescribing the Symptom): Instead of fighting a particular behavior, consciously engage in it.