How to move the conversation from problems to solutions

Here are three questions you can use to turn your conversations from a negative problem focus to a constructive solution focus.  These are particularly handy for the chairs of committee and board meetings to have up their sleeve but can be used in any context really.

One of the things I love about solution focussed approaches is the assumption that you don’t need to understand the problem to make progress.

In fact, ‘problem talk’ can actually make it harder to find solutions.  Placing attention on the things that are wrong distracts from what’s working well and what we want our positive future to look like.

Sometimes of course people need to talk about what’s wrong, to download and to get things off their chest.  Sometimes people have to talk about their problems before they can move on to talking about their solutions.  But other than ‘clearing the decks’, talking about problems is not necessarily helpful from a solution focussed perspective.

However, given that people will want to, and may need to, discuss problems, it’s useful to have a few simple techniques for moving people to ‘solution talk’ when the time is right.

Below are three questions that do just that.  I’ve picked them up from the world of solution focus but actually they are useful for any situation to move things from negative to positive.

1.  What would you like to see instead?

This is one of my favourite questions.  People are very good at describing what they don’t like or don’t want but this question encourages people to construct something positive and a direction to travel in.  So, if someone says ‘I wish we could have less arguing in the team’, asking ‘what would you like instead’, might get a suggestion like ‘people agreeing together what do do next’ or ‘a friendly atmosphere in the office’.  It’s much easier to work out how to make progress when you have positive goals to work towards.  Particularly if you can get people to describe in detail what ‘reaching a consensus’ or ‘a friendly atmosphere’ might look like in practice.

2.  Can you think of an instance when this didn’t happen?

For every problem or bad behaviour there is almost always a time when that problem wasn’t present or that behaviour was absent.  Ask people to think about exceptions and you can then move to discussing the circumstances that led to that positive instance.  That time the team worked really well on a particular project might get mentioned.  What was it about that project?  What helped the team to work well together that time?  Attention is then switched to how the positive circumstances can be captured and reproduced.

3.  What are they like at their best?

Often problem talk revolves around an individual or group who are seen as challenging or difficult.  By asking what the people in question are like at their best you are encouraging a conversation about their positive behaviours and qualities.  You can them follow up with questions about what might have led them to be at their best and how they might be supported to be so in future.  Maybe John made a really big contribution to the team when they took on a particular project.  What qualities does he bring to the team when he is at his best? What helps him to be at his best?


Of course these questions might not work every time and you might need to persevere – particularly where problems talk is the default.  However I’ve certainly found these three simple questions useful for nudging conversations from something negative to something more positive and productive.


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