How to fix workplace problems through time travel

Q. I often find myself with problems I can't predict at work that make my workday rotten. I notice you offer ideas on how to see problems coming. Is there any technique I can use to spot problems before they ruin my day?

A. Yes, write a list of the last four problems that stressed you out at work and a detailed description. Now write down everything the four problems had in common. Now consider this question: If you could time-travel, is there one proactive behavior you could have done to minimize all these problems or keep them from happening?

Most of us, unfortunately, tend to make the same mistakes over and over again that result in different problems. Behaviors we may use include: not speaking up, being sarcastic or pouting. We usually can only see our contribution to our problems in the rearview mirror as we review our history and decision making.

Fortunately, the future is yet unwritten, so we can apply our newfound wisdom to changing our bad interpersonal habits before we create more problems. That is, if we can just see and stop our habitual behavior. One of the enormous powers we all have is to see we have more than one choice when facing a problem.

There was a famous psychiatrist, Milton Erickson, who was shockingly effective in changing human behavior. All his students kept pestering him to write down his theories, but he was reluctant to reduce his thinking about people into narrow categories. The most Erickson would say about what drove his problem solving is that he thought most people were just a little too rigid in their problem solving.

The point he was making was this: We all tend to get stuck in behavioral loops where we don't see that in any given situation, there are perhaps 40 possible choices. We immediately rule out choices that may make us feel uncomfortable, foolish, embarrassed, wrong and other difficult emotions. However, the truth is some of our most powerful options will work, but first they will make us uncomfortable.

Consider being wrong, for instance. In any interpersonal situation, if you admit you may be wrong you'll immediately take any arguments about the other person's self-esteem off the table. Once the other party isn't trying to defend their core value, most people are pretty happy to fix problems with you. However, you might righteously want to stick to your guns about how you are right and they are, well, wrong!

Review your list again and ask yourself what options you aren't seeing because you have been limited in the emotional discomfort you are willing to tolerate. Ask yourself what options you might be able to include if you weren't worried about feeling bad but were very concerned about getting results.

Even famous adventurers get stuck in behavioral loops. Take that pioneer called Dorothy exploring that land called Oz for instance. She thought she was young, inexperienced and had no talents or skills to speak of. Consider her surprise when she discovered that the only thing keeping her from getting what she wanted is that she didn't see the power she had all along. So, the rather magical question for you, dear reader, becomes, What ruby slippers do you have that you have failed to notice?

The last word(s)

Q. I often find myself in meetings where I am not understood. I end up explaining and explaining but it just seems to make my coworkers frustrated. Is there a better way to get my point across?

A. Yes, stop talking, ask more questions, and repeat in your own words what you are hearing until you are certain you know what others want. As the musician Jimi Hendrix once said, "Knowledge speaks, but wisdom listens."

(Daneen Skube, Ph.D., executive coach, trainer, therapist and speaker, also appears as the FOX Channel's "Workplace Guru" each Monday morning. She's the author of "Interpersonal Edge: Breakthrough Tools for Talking to Anyone, Anywhere, About Anything" (Hay House, 2006). You can contact Dr. Skube at or 1420 NW Gilman Blvd., #2845, Issaquah, WA 98027. Sorry, no personal replies.)





Look for this special section in your
Baltimore Sun newspaper on Dec. 29, 2013.
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