Gravity problems make conflict resolution more difficult because they sidetrack us from actionable problems. Here’s how to recognize gravity problems when you see them, why they’re troublesome, and how to prevent them from hijacking resolution.
You’re out on your mountain bike on a gorgeous autumn day. You’re enjoying a little time all to yourself and getting a decent workout. What a day!
Then the trail takes you to the foot of a long uphill slope. You glance up. The slope goes uphill for as far as you can see.
You work that slope for all it’s worth. But the longer you climb, the harder it is to turn the pedals. Eventually, you’re barely moving and there’s still a lot of hill left ahead of you. You stop and stand there, looking up the long hill.
“That damn gravity,” you say to yourself. “It’s such a problem, slowing me down like this. We’ve really got to do something about it.”
Management consultant and Stanford University lecturer Dave Evans, co-author of Designing Your Life, uses a similar cycling example to illustrate what he calls Gravity Problems.
Gravity problems are problems you can’t do anything about because they’re just reality, like gravity.
You can fight gravity all you want on that hill, but you’re not going to change gravity. Your only choice is to accept it, even if you don’t like it.
Gravity problems, says Evans, are frustrating because they’re not actionable. They keep you stuck:
If you can’t change gravity, or can defy it only through immense effort, then you must find the problem you can solve.
Maybe the problem you can solve is: How to get better at cycling up steep slopes? Or, How to find flatter mountain biking trails. Or, How to make cycling uphill easier? Or maybe even, How best to enjoy your recreation time?
When you try to solve problems like these, it’s easier to find solutions: Lose weight. Get more fit. Strengthen your leg muscles. Get a bike with more gears. Get a motorcycle. Move somewhere flat. Choose another sport.
You may not love any of these solutions. But they will get you somewhere that trying to fix gravity won’t.
I see Gravity Problems all the time in my conflict resolution work (I fall victim to them too). They sound like this:
The challenge with framing problems this way is that you’re setting yourself up for an exasperating battle.
Could you possibly solve any of these problems? Sure. After all, they’re not pure gravity. People do change, after all.
But it’s quite hard to get someone to change because you want them to. I see a lot of effort put into this goal when I work with clients, and it’s one source of ongoing tension in personal and professional relationships.
Let’s use the last problem frame as an example. If your quest is to transform someone you believe to be conflict-averse into someone who willingly confronts conflict when you wish, your solutions may have to be incremental (so it will be a long game), coercive (which can damage the relationship or your reputation), or even manipulative, unless they’re truly interested in becoming less conflict-averse.
Gravity Problems in conflict situations are no different than “regular” Gravity Problems: You’re trying to change a circumstance when you could make progress by solving an actionable problem instead.
Instead, you could choose to consider his apparent conflict avoidance like gravity — it just is.
Instead of fighting gravity, you could accept that it may be in his nature to be conflict avoidant. Then you can reframe a circumstance that bugs you into an actionable problem you can solve, like this:
1. Determine what problem the circumstance causes for you.
In our example you’d ask, What problem does his conflict avoidance create? Maybe it’s a problem like one of these:
Let’s work with the first possibility: You can’t get him to sit down and talk things out after a disagreement. This is a frustrating problem if you’re someone who likes to clear the air and sort things out.
It’s tempting to run with this problem reframe. It doesn’t seem like a gravity problem, after all, because it’s actionable: How to get him to sit down and talk things out after a disagreement.
2. Make sure the new problem you’ve identified isn’t a gravity problem in disguise.
Getting someone to sit down and talk things out after a disagreement is a gravity problem in disguise, because your solution (getting him to talk about it with you) doesn’t accept that it may be in his nature to be conflict avoidant. Instead, it pushes him to go against his nature because you want him to.
Occasionally that works. But you’ve read this far because mostly, it doesn’t.
You’re back, then, to solutions that are incremental, coercive, or manipulative — and which may be very long in coming to fruition.
3. Ask what problem the newly identified problem creates for you.
What problem is created for you when he won’t sit down and talk things out? Perhaps it’s a problem like one of these:
Now you’re getting somewhere. These problems don’t fight gravity — they accept that it may be in his nature to avoid conflict.
They don’t require him to change his nature to address things that are frustrating to you.
Better yet, they reveal the problems you’re experiencing, which until now were buried beneath accusations and demands that he change something potentially fundamental about himself.
4. Frame it in problem-solving terms.
Take your problem statement and turn it into an actionable problem with a simple language change:
Of course, you may never love solving one of these problems as much as you’d love getting the other person to change. But you’ll have more success in getting somewhere so you can put your energy into other things you love.
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