Are you problem or solution-focused?

Imagine this: you’re dealing with a difficult dynamic at work. You get home from a painful day and vent to your partner. They jump to solution mode, suggesting one, then another, and then another way to deal with the problem.

The more they try to solve it, the less you feel heard. As your frustration rises, so does theirs – why don’t you want to do anything about it?

Chances are, you’re approaching the conversation with two completely different mindsets.

Problem-focused mindset

This mindset makes you very good at identifying problems, causes, and potential impacts. It’s a powrful skill — a deep understanding of problems enables you to be more effective at solving them. Sitting with a problem for a while — even venting about it — is a critical step towards addressing it.

As you progress in your career, the ability to identify risks and potential downsides becomes even more important. Often called ‘Black Hat thinking’, it helps avoid irreparable mistakes by thinking about what could go wrong before it does.

But this thinking can quickly become self-defeating — especially when you feel tired, overwhelmed or powerless. When you stay in problem mode too long, you risk getting trapped there. We all know people who continually focus on problems, pointing out everything wrong with a project, transition, or person. They bring unhelpful negativity and can create a toxic, unproductive environment.

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Solution-focused mindset

A solution mindset can be equally as powerful as a problem one. In this state, you put yourself in control of developing innovative ways to remove blockers, barriers and issues. Or, as Barak Obama says:

“Learn how to get stuff done. I’ve seen at every level people who are very good at describing problems, people who are very sophisticated in explaining why something went wrong or why something can’t get fixed, but what I’m always looking for is no matter how small the problem or how big it is, somebody who says, ‘Let me take care of that.’”

Barak, find a free slot in our Calendly to continue the conversation (bring Michelle). There’s plenty more to discuss because a solution mindset can be as counterproductive as a problem one.

Jumping to solution mode too early can lead to overload, delivering substandard solutions and leaving no space for empathy. Without critical thinking and analysis of problem mode, we can find ourselves running through one-way doors, only to get stuck on the other side. 

You have two hats. Wear them both!

Imagine each mindset as a physical hat. You wouldn’t wear a backwards cap to a formal event, and you shouldn’t wear a problem hat in a brainstorming session. Conversely, a solutions hat? It’s wise to ask before you put it on while your child/partner/friend/colleague is venting because there’s a good chance they’ll say ‘please don’t’.

In an ideal world, we’d switch seamlessly from problem to solution mode as the situation requires. However, in reality, it takes practice. So, what do you do when the hat you’re wearing is no longer serving you?

1. Take note

Pay attention to your internal and external monologue, whether it’s a difficult manager, a bad relationship, a frustrating job, or a cantankerous colleague. Are you turning up to another social event with another rant? Or regularly overthinking your way to sleep? You might be stuck in problem mode. 

On the other hand, do you find yourself jumping in with an answer for every problem? Or are you constantly fighting to get your idea implemented? You might be putting your solution hat on too soon.

2. Get a fresh perspective

There’s good evidence to suggest Mileva Marić Einstein was at least 50% of the brains behind the brand. But her husband coined the phrase, “No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it.” And he’s right. 

As a Powrsuiter, you know the importance of a professional board of directors. Stuck in one mindset? Get the gang together and get curious. Whether you need to look at the problem differently or let the problem go, this group is invaluable in helping you get unstuck.

Looking inward for perspective is also important, especially if your mindset is impacting your mental health. If you can only see the downside, it’s worth examining why. Therapy and journalling can be great tools here.

3. Make a new habit

While it’s great to find balance, keeping it is more challenging. Here are some simple ways to make a practice of jumping between problem and solution mode:

  • Know your ‘tells’: Are you tired? In a particular stage of your menstrual cycle? A parent? All these things can contribute to leaning too far into one mode of thinking. Identify your tells and take a breath before responding.
  • Focus on both sides: At the end of each day/week, list one thing that went well and one thing you want to improve (or do every week as part of your Powrsuit membership).
  • Change your default responses: If your go-to response to a greeting is ‘busy’, ‘stressed’ or ‘good’, examine whether that’s true before you respond. Get in the habit of answering honestly.
  • Try the other hat on for size: In your next meeting or conversation. You might be surprised how well it fits! Our article on getting comfortable with conflict has some great tips for trying the other side of the debate.

30 second action

Keep a problem vs solution count on your phone today. Every time you share a solution or problem/complaint, add it to your tally.

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