There are times when you get stuck in arguments. Discussions seem to go nowhere. You are running in circles and it’s not obvious what to do. People around you, in a meeting, for example, for very good reasons, don’t want to abandon the discussion. Despite the fact that it’s not getting anywhere, the subject is not trivial; you want to reach some sort of resolution.
There are many things one can do but here are three that will cost you nothing:
One: take a serious break
Two: tackle a completely different topic and come back to this one later
Number three is the one I’d like to talk about here. It has to do with using new lenses and changing your mental frame of mind. The best way to start this is to use the most powerful Weapon of Mass Disruption we have in management. That is to ask the question: ‘What is the question (that we are trying to answer)?’ If you are lucky, that in itself may get you un-stuck, because a great deal of the running in circles and going nowhere may come simply from the lack of clarity about the question on the table.
If however the problem still persists, change the question. Play: ‘What if the question was different?’ What if the question was not the one we have formulated but an alternative one? We are stuck on the question of profit; what if the question was how to gain market share? We are stuck with the question of employee benefits; what if the question was employee engagement and retention? We are stuck with using a leadership model in a performance management system; what if the question was not about assessment but the way we develop these leaders?
Surrounding the original question with alternative questions, all of them close enough to the original (but not the same question just expressed through a simple twist of the language) may suddenly do the trick and provide a road map to answer all of them.
These three real examples, which I have dealt with recently in my work with clients, may seem like trivial changes in the questioning but they are not. The little reframing involved has great power to disrupt the thinking and provoke fresh ideas.
The main problem with being stuck, is being stuck. Moving in any reasonable direction is much better than running in circles. The alternative questions and the ‘what if’ will take you outside the vicious circle. Sometimes I call it ‘elevating the confusion to a higher level’. Or lower! Change the frame. It does a pretty good job.
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