Focus on the problem, not on the person
We all face challenges every day. Things in the world are seldom exactly as we want them, and we spend a large part of our lives trying to change that situation.
In most cases, overcoming the obstacles between ourselves and what we want involves working with other people. They may be selling us something, working on a team with us, or under our command.
And other people are notoriously difficult to work with. So often, they simply can’t or won’t do things just the way we want them to. It can be very frustrating.
However, using this fact to justify ranting, raving and throwing accusations around the place is just plain stupid. As tempting as it can be to criticize, blame and fume, such behaviors are almost certainly counter-productive.
Going on the attack should be a last resort in overcoming challenges. Rather than focussing on the person, you should try to see past them and figure out how to solve the problem.
Let’s take a look at large-scale human interactions to drive home the point – the negotiations between nations.
Countries around the world have disputes all the time. They argue over trade, land, movements of people, fishing rights, pollution and any number of other issues. Such disputes can become very intense, with national-pride and economic gain in play.
Despite the passions involved, sensible nations almost always try to avoid the aggressive option of military attack. They do so, not necessarily for moral reasons, but because they know that war is usually expensive and messy.
Take, for example, the war which the USA launched against Iraq in 2003. At the time, those who supported the war thought they had good reason for attack. The leader of Iraq, a long time foe, was seen as supporting terrorism and holding weapons of mass destruction.
The USA is a far greater military power than Iraq, and the war seemed like it would be a fairly straight-forward exercise. They'd simply invade, overthrow the government, then install a friendly administration in its place. The outcome would be less terrorism, less weapons of mass destruction, and a stable, prosperous and democratic Iraq.
At the time of writing, three and a half years after the invasion was launched, the USA still seems a long way from achieving its goals in Iraq. No weapons of mass destruction have been found, terrorist acts are still being carried out, and Iraq is nowhere near stable or prosperous.
The cost of the war to date has been $320 billion and over 2,500 American troops and are allies dead, along with many civilians and other soldiers.
That’s not to say launching the war was necessarily wrong, or that history won’t prove it a valuable enterprise. This isn’t a political piece.
Instead, the point is that war usually turns out to be much messier, costlier and has more negative consequences than those who launch it expect. This lesson has been taught again and again throughout the history of human conflict.
At the personal level, you're likely to find the same forces in action. Attacking those who are perceived to stand between you and what you want is likely to be costlier and messier than you expect. Treating others with disrespect, contempt or hostility can have all sorts of unexpected and negative consequences.
People I know who often attack others – whether through criticism, accusations, or physical aggression – rarely seem to get what they want out of life. Most people will actively avoid helping those who harass them.
As a result, you should try to avoid interpersonal conflict much in the same way governments try to avoid war. It's cheaper and more productive to find other solutions by focussing on the problem rather than the person.
Of course in many cases, you may feel as if the person is the problem. Perhaps you sense they’ve tried to cheat you, or have failed to meet their duties properly. But often, careful examination can find the situation is not as simple as it appears. Perhaps the person hasn’t been given enough information, time, or incentive to do what you want.
A good starting point is to say to them: “Please don’t see this as criticism or blame, but things haven’t turned out how I hoped they would. What can we change to fix the situation and make sure it doesn’t happen again?”
Most people deep down are fair, hard-working, and proud. If you give them the incentive, tools, and opportunity they’ll often surprise you with just how helpful they can be.
Of course, sometimes people are dishonest and unreasonable. You should try to work around such people as much as possible, but conflict isn’t always unavoidable. Be patient and try a lot of things before such conflict becomes necessary, however. Like war for governments, conflict for people should be a last-resort.
Focus on the problem, not on the person. Work around the fact that most of us are likely to make the occasional error, and will be more interested than our own needs than yours. Such a strategy is likely to find you more often achieving the results you want.
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