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The Science of Increasing Productivity: Solving Problems Efficiently

I once counseled a married couple named Kristen and Jack, who also ran a business together. Unfortunately, they had been arguing about how to spend money in their business nearly every week for the last fifteen years. Even after 15 years, they had not resolved their issues. Jack thought Kristen was way too loose with their money, while Kristen thought Jack was a hopeless cheapskate. They'd go back and forth between who was to blame, but ultimately they got nowhere. By the time I was called in to help, they were at each other's throats. Rather than try to find out who was right and who was to blame for their money woes, I simply asked each of them to answer a single question. The question was, "What are a couple of solutions you think might work out better for both of you in this situation?”

It took a while before they could stop their blaming and actually answer the question. Yet, when they did, magic happened.

Despite their fifteen-year history of being at a stalemate, as they answered the question, their bickering stopped. Kristen suggested she get a set amount of money each week that she could spend as she pleases, and Jack agreed in principle. Then, after a bit of a negotiation, they came to an amount that neither liked, but they both found acceptable. Within 10 minutes of asking for solutions, Kristen and Jack's financial and marital harmony were miraculously restored.

By letting go of finding fault and instead focusing on solutions that could work for everyone, you can quickly overcome even long-standing problems with co-workers. But to focus on solutions, you need the right question to guide you—or you'll likely fall into the pothole of blame and trying to be right.

So right now, sit up straight in your chair, take a deep breath, and then let it out with a long, slow sigh.


Whenever you find yourself making someone wrong—or disagreeing with someone as to how to proceed, ask instead, "What are a couple of solutions you think might work out better for both of us in this situation?" When two people actually explore solutions—rather than bicker over who is right, you end up in a negotiation. Most negotiations only take a couple of minutes to work out, whereas trying to pin down who is most to blame is a complete waste of your valuable time.

If the solutions you hear from others don't work for you, simply say, "Would you be willing to hear a couple more ways we might compromise so it could work out for both of us?" Since you've been gracious to hear their solutions, they will feel obligated to hear yours. Then, once again, you're back to negotiation. If worse comes to worst, you can at least come up with a short term solution–like a day or a week—to try one of the proposed solutions. Then offer that if this short term solution is not acceptable to either of you after trying it, you'll renegotiate. By letting go of who is right and who is wrong, you can keep moving forward and learn to work with people—rather than against them.

Not only will this help you to get more done, it will also help you to have a less stressful time at work. So the next time you feel stuck with someone, ask them, What are a couple of solutions you think might work out better for both of us? And if you don't like their proposals, offer a couple of your own and negotiate a compromise. You'll be glad you did.

In the final session of this program, we'll quickly review some key points of this course and offer one last method for making work both peaceful and productive.

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Written by

Jonathan Robinson