Considering people problems

When people are behaving badly, there are four major ways we can see what's occurring. Each offers some benefits at a cost. There are no easy answers when it comes to resolving people problems. Here's a quick review of the four outlooks we typically deploy when facing people problems:

Preoccupied outlook: When we've already got a full plate, another problem seems like too much to ask of us. We run the risk of getting blamed for failing to get involved, taking charge or insisting on finding a solution. On the other hand, we can hope our benign neglect will serve the situation well. There's always the chance that:

  • the problem will work itself out over time as participants become more resourceful
  • the people involved with get tired of the problem and change their conduct
  • the problem will get worse and force others to fix it
  • the problem is a passing phase of development the people will outgrow

Pre-emptive outlook: When the problem cannot be ignored it becomes our problem to solve. It's becoming increasingly difficult to separate the people from the problems they're causing and enduring. We may pay a price for procrastinating out of fear or taking too little action too late out of hesitation. We take pre-emptive action before the people problem:

  • gets worse from neglect or letting it get further out of control
  • becomes more widespread as others imitate the instigator or join in the antics 
  • gets more firmly rooted in the cultural norms or habitual reaction patterns
  • becomes endured with resignation, cynicism or despair

Perceptive outlook: When a people problem persists, it becomes inviting to look at it more deeply. The surface evidence must be symptomatic of a deeper set of intertwined problems. Dealing directly with the obvious problem can become part of the problem, make it worse on the surface or even feed it's hidden dynamics. The perceptive outlook changes the definition of the problem to be addressed:

  • as if the people are in pain and acting out their frustrations
  • as if the problem is sending unspoken signals, crying for help or calling attention to an overlooked situation
  • as if the problem is compensating for another extreme condition that needs to be brought into balance
  • as if the problem functions as a way to escape a history of failure, abuse or chronic misfortune

Process outlook: When a people problem thrives on any attention, it's time to foil it's plot with non-resistence. We run the risk of well-intnetioned actions blowing up in our face. The situation presents unusual opportunities to give the participants in the problem:

  • permission to persist with their efforts until something better comes to mind
  • portraits of their good intentions, desire to make a difference and history of successful accomplishments
  • protection from others who book them on guilt trips, label them as bad people or frame them as enemies
  • pressure to choose wisely among additional options, criteria or agendas

Whichever outlook we choose, the people problem will become our teacher. We will learn from the problem what works with it in particular. We will find errors in our habitual outlook and reasons to explore some of the others. We will get graded on our outlook by the people problem giving us high or low marks for our intervention. We will experience the freedom of taking a practice test to prepare us to try a different outlook the next time around.

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