Rules of Engagement for Problem Solving Conversations

Dr. John Townsend

November 13, 2014

Leaders must have the skill of having problem solving talks and conducting them successfully.  This is not an easy thing to do, but it is important and valuable.  In fact, some of the best gains that can happen in an organization can happen at a tough talk, when people are honest, direct and still respectful of each other.  Problems are solved, and solutions are followed.

When I train executive and management teams, I set them up with “rules of engagement” when there is a specific conflict or problem, to keep the process going.  I present them, we discuss them and make sure everyone understands and buys in, and things work more seamlessly.  Here are some of the basic rules for leadership that will help you:

  1. The leader presents the issue and the desired outcome.  This is the leader’s job, and it keeps things focused, for example, “Sales have been slow, and there is conflict over the problem.  Some people say it’s the sales department, some say it’s fulfillment and some say it’s marketing.  We are going to get input from everyone, find reality, and come up with solutions that work.”
  2. Everyone commits to a solution that is for the good of the company as a whole.  Ask the players to agree that, as much as possible, they will stay away from protecting their turf, and engage with thinking that is for the best idea that guards the mission of the company.  Simply saying this helps people to be more objective.
  3. Everyone presents their side without interruption.  No ifs, ands or but.  Everybody gets their opinion out there.
  4. In order to provide a response, the person must first paraphrase the previous person’s comments to that person’s satisfaction.  In other words, you don’t go ahead until the person says, “Yes, you understand my point of view.”  I can’t emphasize how important this is.  Too many meetings are just a sequence of people saying “Well I think X” and “Well, I think Y”, and there is simply no connection between the thoughts.  Here’s how it would look:  “Sandra, I hear you saying that marketing has been unclear in its strategy, and that has led to the sales slump.  Do I get it?”  Sandra:  “No, that’s not really what I was saying”, and you try again.  This tip will save you hours and hours of time!
  5. Someone is a timekeeper.  When there is no time structure, meetings can go way too long.  Estimate what this decision will take:  “I think we should be able to have a solution in 30 minutes, let’s go.”  Our brains respond to structure like this.
  6. During the last third of the time, press for solutions.  Even if you don’t have 100% of the info and discussion done, as long as most of it is done, start saying, “OK, what is our best solution for this?”  Don’t get lost in the paralysis of analysis.

Problem solving talks are a permanent reality for every leader.  Learn and execute these skills.

If your meeting gets off track, there are 6 words you can use to redirect the group. The video below reveals these words:


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