Framing problems as separate from people

We are not only affected by our own biases, but those of the people we interact with.  So the sorts of psychological hacks I write about also apply to our interactions with other people.  Here is a classic, from Stu via Parent Hacks:

When I have a problem that concerns one of my kids (meaning: When I want them to do something that they refuse to do), I see that I have a choice. I could visualize my child standing on the other side of a line, next to "The Problem", with me yelling across the line, "Hey, you better solve "The Problem." Instead, I get myself to stand next to my child, with "The Problem" alone on the other side of the line, with me putting an arm around my child, saying "Hey, you and me, we’re gonna defeat "The Problem" together." I find that this attitude seems to make my kids feel better about themselves. It minimizes/eliminates shame.

This cognitive reframing doesn’t just apply to parent:child relationships, but many other places such as husband:wife, manager:report, and worker:coworker.  Basically, anywhere that you need to bring up a problem that someone else is causing or contributing to, where there is enough shared interest that the "same team" model is reasonable.

It does not always work – your bid for connection may be refused, with the person insisting that The Problem is yours to deal with.  But by setting things up so that The Problem is separate from the person, you avoid the mistake of making the person feel attacked or criticized, which usually puts them on the defensive and makes them less likely to do what you want.

Besides the short-term benefits, the person is likely to feel better about whatever it is they do, even if they would have done it anyway, because it’s always more pleasant to choose to do something that to be told.  Instead of straining the relationship with criticism/defensiveness, it is strengthened by camaraderie, which can lead to a virtuous cycle where such interactions are more likely and natural in the future.

This notion of separating the idea and the person is old hat to many economists, of course, who can smilingly shred each others theories without anyone ever imagining it was personal or getting defensive. But in many situations – with kids, in close relationships, when there is a power imbalance, when the issue lies close to someone’s identity – academic detachment is less natural, and so this technique can help. While I find the economist’s way quite natural in some situations (like work), in my home life I get defensive far more easily, even about minor topics.  This technique (used on me) helps reduce the defensiveness I feel as well as (used on others) that which I cause. (It’s important that this technique is Golden-Rule compatible, I wouldn’t want to teach something which worked on others but was unpleasant to be subjected to.)

To keep this from being completely abstract, here are some examples:

Original: "Dammit, son, you forgot to take the trash out again!  Why can’t you remember something so simple?"
Reframed: "Looks like the trash got forgotten out again.  Maybe we should set up a better reminder system.  What are you using now?"

Original: "Hey Bob.  Let’s talk about the problems in your performance review.  As usual, it says you don’t do enough testing of your code.  That’s a real problem for a software engineer, and you need to do better."
Reframed: "Hey Bob.  Let’s talk about how we can make you a stronger contributor.  It looks like testing has always been a tough spot for you.  How can I help you grow in this area?"

It may sound cheesy, but if you try this way of framing things, I think you will find people respond better to you.   You can help yourself and help them grow at the same time.

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  • PK

    Nice post.

  • a. y. mous

    Hasn’t worked. Won’t work. At least, not on problems that really need to be solved, rather than on problems that would “sure would make life easier if solved.”

    In your examples, no amount of counter-posing the problem would help when the very principle of ‘trash removal’ or ‘software testing’ is not accepted to be valid.

  • Liron

    Good post, but I don’t think the example of taking out the trash is congruent with good parenting techniques. If your kid isn’t taking out the trash, that’s a failure of personal responsibility. You should NOT be on their “reminding” team with this task, because they alone are accountable for it.

    Instead, you should just train them to be responsible by dispassionately providing some immediate negative consequence (that you previously explained would happen), which can even be as over-the-top as dumping trash on their bedroom floor. Don’t have a talk with them, just casually act like that consequence is hardwired into the kid-parent-garbage system.

    Kids are almost never too retarded or incompetent to carry out a task like remembering to take out the trash. They are just opportunists who want to maximize their pleasure given their knowledge of the world around them – not unlike adults! So if you invent a system where trash gets dumped on their floor, they’ll deeply associate (in a Pavlovian way) their lack of responsibility with an immediate, relevant, unambiguous negative consequence.

    Even though you’re not directly on the “reminding” team, you’re still on their general “life help” team with this problem, because they can come to you for help and advice, and you don’t act mean to them or anything. So implementing an effective system to teach PERSONAL responsibility is actually compatible with the ideas in this post.

  • Caledonian

    In my experience, talking to someone as though they were on your team when they actually do not share your specific or general interests is likely to annoy them.

    Presumably the engineer wants to improve his performance… and possibly the teenager wants to do a better job of completing his assigned chores. But if these are not the respective cases, the suggested method will be patronizing and obnoxious.

  • EconLog

    Who Says Economics Causes Asperger’s?

    Patri son of David son of Milton begins by approvingly quoting Stu:When I have a problem that concerns one of…

  • Doug S.

    To quote Calvin, of Calvin and Hobbes:

    “If you do the job badly enough, sometimes you don’t get asked to do it again.”

  • Ari

    I find that this advice works well, not just with others, but especially with myself! Once I remove “me” from the picture, it’s much easier to deal with a problem that might otherwise seem intimidating or deceptively personal. To illustrate, say I’m playing chess. If I think in terms of, “Where am I going to move? My opponent is going to get me, he’s probably planning something that I don’t see, I’d better not screw up …,” then these feelings are likely to cloud my judgment, leading me to make a bad decision. It’s much better for me to say, “This is the state of the board. What is white’s best move?”

  • Ben

    I think your examples serve only to highlight that, while verbal acrobatics can be powerful, they are not always forces for good.

    Too often I have seen people clumsily attempting to reframe a situation, resulting in the “recipients” feeling disrespected and patronized.

    Much like they would in the examples you give in your post 😉

    Thanks for the thought provoking post.

  • Constant

    It helps if you really believe what you’re saying. If you try the technique but you don’t feel in your gut that the problem is separate from the person then your words are more likely to sound forced and ring false. It’s like trying to force a smile when you don’t feel like smiling.

  • Hendrik Boom

    Maybe economists do this. But I’ve heard that philosophers are often so mean-spirited in their arguments that it deters people who might make very good philosophers from entering the profession.

  • Brian Schwartz

    “It does not always work – your bid for connection may be refused, with the person insisting that The Problem is yours to deal with.”

    “Bid for connection….” Looks like Patri has been either reading John Gottman‘s books (esp. The Relationship Cure), or is close with someone who has. It’s a great concept for looking at relationships, and Gottman’s empirical research on the relationship between “bidding” and how they are received is quite valuable. Well, to me at least.

  • Stu mark

    Hi. I’m the guy who wrote the original “The Problem” concept.

    To be clear, the idea is that you can take any situation resulting in a negative outcome and deal with it without blame. Because, in my opinion, if you’re the parent, you’re the manager. And if your kid screws up, as a good manager, you know that casting blame on the employee is not going to empower them. And an empowered kid, like an empowered employee, will reveal benefits that increase over time, just as the mistakes will decrease over time.

    Some of you may believe in punishment, but to you, I provide my lone example: We don’t yell, hit, or punish our children. They, in turn, bring home straight A report cards, are marvelously polite in public, helpful around the house, and caring of others.

    We don’t have to turn into our parents. There are other options.

  • Shefaly

    @ Patri: Isn’t this the same idea as “separate the position from the people while negotiating” in Ury and Fisher’s “Getting to Yes”?

    The key flaw here is to frame the entire issue in a cognitive, wholly rational frame. Rationality is bounded, mainly because in practice human cognition has limitations. Unless factors such as the power imbalance and unstated agendas are taken into account, the problem will not be solved using just rational framings.

    The person who quoted Calvin is spot-on but the parent has to remember and exercise some authority over the child. Some things are non-negotiable (tidying your room, washing your hands before eating etc), and for everything else, it is worth remembering that the other party is also a learning entity.

    @ Stu: FWIW I was a very naughty and hyperactive child, who was often punished as an example to my siblings who are exceptionally well-behaved and polite. I still got straight As through school, college, and triple dose of graduate school. There was some negotiation with my father, there were some rewards, but mostly there were house rules which we followed without so much as a peep.

  • nolrai

    hmm I wonder if the respose to the quotes has anything to do with how likely one is to honestly forget taking out the trash. I forget to do things all the time, and so find the refrazing useful. (I also would most likely already be feeling guilty about it)

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