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3 Ways to Turn Adversaries into Problem-Solving Partners

Most people don’t want to be wrangled into doing something you want but they don’t. Here are three ways to turn them into your problem-solving partners and dissolve resistance.

When I was a little girl, the police came to the door more than a few times. And they always had my grandmother in tow.

I’d answer the knock on the door. Standing there would be a giant New York State Police officer. Next to him, looking chastened, would be my 4′ 10″ Scottish grandmother, who lived with us.

My mother would come to the door. “Good afternoon, Ma’am,” the officer would say. “Is this your mother?”

“Yes, Officer,” my mother would reply calmly.

“Ma’am, are you aware your mother is hitchhiking?”

“Yes, Officer,” my mother would reply.

The officer would usually look a little nonplussed by that. “Are you aware that hitchhiking is illegal, Ma’am?” the officer would ask.

“Yes, Officer,” my mother would reply.

“Then why don’t you stop her?” he’d ask.

To which my mother would reply, “Officer, if you can stop her, please be my guest.”

Yes, my 80-something granny was a hitchhiker. It entertained her, gave her something to do, gave her lots of people to talk to. And it was still a relatively safe activity back then for an old woman with a thick Scottish burr and a desire to gab and go anywhere someone would take her in our region of upstate New York. She usually made it home in plenty of time for dinner.

Then one day, when she was 86, my Granny MacDonald hitchhiked too long in the hot sun, got sunstroke, and toppled over into a ditch. After that, the doctor told my parents that they had to do whatever it took to stop Granny from thumbing rides.

Under pressure and in desperation, my parents locked up Granny’s shoes — and felt terrible about it.

The police visits stopped for a while. Then one morning I heard my mother laughing as she looked out the living room window. There was Granny at the foot of the driveway, purse over her arm, scarf neatly tied over her gray hair. Thumb out.

In her fuzzy pink slippers.

Finding a solution that would stick

My Granny showed her headstrong Scottish stock that day (I inherited it too). She refused to be wrangled into submission. Maybe you know someone like that. Maybe you are someone like that. Maybe most of us don’t want to be wrangled into doing what someone else wants.

Here are three alternatives to wrangling:

1. Solve a better problem

The problem my parents tried to solve by taking away Granny MacDonald’s shoes was this: How to stop Granny from hitchhiking.

Both the doctor and the police framed the problem in those terms and my parents didn’t question it. After all, they didn’t want her hitchhiking either. The problem was framed in a way that almost everyone’s desired solution was built into the frame: Stop the hitchhiking.

But Granny pushed back because she didn’t have an interest in solving that particular problem.

If we dig deeper, we can wonder why my parents wanted Granny to stop hitchhiking. They cared about her safety. In conflict resolution jargon, this is called an interest. Interests are the needs, underlying concerns, and values behind positions; they are often intangible and left unstated.

So a better problem that needed solving was this: How to keep Granny safe.

Both problem frames, as they’re called, yield very different solutions, as you’ll see when I finish Granny’s story later.

When you find someone pushing back at the problem you’re trying to solve, remember my Granny in her fuzzy pink slippers. Find the problem everyone agrees needs solving and you create problem-solving partners instead of resistance.

2. Generate alternatives to your favored solution

We know this, right? It’s problem-solving and decision-making 101.

But research suggests we still don’t really do it.

When management professor Paul C. Nutt looked at how leaders make decisions, he found that very few bother to uncover and evaluate multiple alternatives before choosing. Instead, most fall in love pretty quickly with one option:

“Decision makers rarely give anything but a single idea serious consideration before a choice is made. Four of five decision makers consider just one idea before acting.”

Nutt’s research concluded that one of the major reasons decisions fail is this very lack of alternative-generating. This happened with The Fuzzy Pink Slipper incident, too. How do you stop an old lady from hitchhiking when she insists on doing it anyway? You lock her in the house or you take away her shoes. Everyone involved — but for Granny — stopped at what seemed the only remaining solution available and didn’t look much further.

That worked out well.

3. Really value their voice in the problem-solving

This also seems obvious, right? But how often do we actually do it?

When we’re the care-takers of our elderly parent or teenager, do we seriously include their voice at the table? Or do we take their interests only “into consideration,” secretly sure that we know best?

When we’re the boss, do we take on the harder task of finding solutions that create buy-in from employees who see things differently, or do we gather “input,” wanting employees to feel heard but not very committed to actually hearing them?

There are surely many times when a problem doesn’t merit deep, collaborative solving and so benefits from the efficiency of forging ahead without trying to foster buy-in.

There are also times when real commitment and buy-in by others to our solution does matter, such as when we’re asking someone to change a behavior or when we’re in a crucial, ongoing professional or personal relationship with them.

Including stakeholders’ voices and deeply valuing their voices are different things. When we care about real buy-in, we must choose the latter.

After the Fuzzy Pink Slipper Incident, my mother returned Granny’s shoes. “Have a ball, Mom,” she said.

Granny agreed not to hitchhike on very hot summer days. She stood by her promise, too. The police still brought her home on occasion but no one, including the police, seemed to make a big deal out of it.

She hitchhiked until she died in bed one morning as she neared her 90th birthday. Dreaming, no doubt, of the open road and all those thumbed rides.


Tammy Lenski

Dr. Tammy Lenski helps individuals, pairs, teams, and audiences navigate disagreement better, address friction, and build alignment. Her current work centers on creating the conditions for robust collaboration and sound decisions while fostering resilient personal and professional relationships. Her conflict resolution podcast and blog, Disagree Better, are available at… MORE >

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