“It’s excruciating to watch when my daughter encounters an obstacle,” said Terri. “She finds out she’s forgotten about an English assignment and it’s due the next day. And then she thinks and thinks. Not about the assignment but about how she ended up forgetting, how terrible it feels to be in a last-minute situation, how lousy the report is going to be, etc. It takes f-o-r-e-v-e-r. I don’t understand why she lets herself get sucked into the problem and makes it way worse than it is. It drives me crazy. From my perspective, the solution is simple — just write the essay already.”
As a coach, I hear stories like this often — parents who are exasperated by the way their teen/young adult approaches problem-solving. So I wanted to explore the diversity of ways that people respond to difficulties and conflicts, hopefully opening our minds and our hearts to other ways of being.
The ways that humans cope with problems fall into three broad categories: reacting, containing and reframing.
Before going any farther, let’s be clear that one style is not better than another — our personalities simply have different ways of defending against loss and disappointment. So, when it seems like someone else is overreacting or not helping enough, remember that each approach IS taking the conflict seriously; they’re just handling it in a different way from yours.
These are the people who work themselves up when a problem occurs and express their big feelings. While all of us experience emotions to some extent when facing an obstacle, these people have an emotional intensity that allows them to feel the “realness” of the problem, even if it is a relatively small one.
These people actually feel the need to point out the bad thing. They have to vent to be able to get on with dealing with the issue. It’s also a way of checking to see if/how others react so they know where they stand.
When faced with a conflict, their strong reactions come out in a few different ways:
Anger. I’m furious and everyone is going to know about it… I’ve been called a bulldozer, willful and confrontational but I’m just the one who is strong enough to actually take care of this … In a way, I’m energized by conflict.
Despair. Oh no, a problem… I withdraw into my imagination and the problems amplify… People think I’m moody, self-absorbed and over-dramatic, but I feel hurt and hopeless and I need to express myself.
Fear. I see lots of possible repercussions and it makes me anxious that others don’t get this… I know I rant but someone has to point out the pitfalls… I have to let off steam before I can even think about resolving the problem.
Recognizing anyone you know? Is this you?
Or, like many, is this a style you have an aversion to? The reactive/ expressive response is the least supported by our society, which often rewards rationality and emotional control (repression). And yet, these people can be so great at working through their emotions, and those of others, and moving on to find solutions. If they remember not to bowl others over or pull them under.
CONTAINING This is the competent approach. These people remain calm and emotionally detached from the issue and look directly toward resolution, working as quickly and effectively as they can. For them, cognitive efficiency is the best way through. They don’t point out the problem like the reactive types; they aim to contain it — capably and practically.
They might sound like:
I’m sure we can solve this like sensible adults. Let’s roll up our sleeves and get to work on this right away.
I can focus all my energy on the task and postpone any needs or feelings I may have about this.
I hold myself to high standards of objectivity to find the right answer.
I want to be seen as successful by resolving this smoothly and efficiently.
I need to learn more and consider the whole system before attacking the problem.
Following the rules or principles to resolve this properly is more important than how I or others feel about this issue.
What are you noticing as you read this? Do you feel comfortable or uneasy? Who in your life approaches problems in this way?
We generally applaud these people but there are downsides too: being seen as rigid, critical, impatient, insincere or detached. Because they set aside their own feelings to deal with the problem at hand, these people tend to also set aside the feelings of others. Or if they’re fixated on efficiency, they may cut corners unwisely or in opposition to what’s important to others.
But feelings are part of facing problems and conflicts. When they allow emotions to arise (in themselves and others) and be expressed, it can clear the path for sharing perspectives and connecting more empathetically with others.
REFRAMING This is the silver-lining approach, the people who see the positives and bring our attention to what is still going right. Under the pressure of difficulties, they automatically avoid or minimize the problem. They’d rather have everyone feeling good, including themselves, than deal with problems or negativity.
So where do they focus?
Keeping everything upbeat. Dismisses problems quickly and moves on to the next thing… Cracks a joke or throws a wrench into the problem to distract themselves and others… There may be a problem but I’m just fine.
Amplifying the goodness in themselves and others. I don’t have a problem so I focus on helping others with theirs… Our positive intentions will solve the problem…Whatever happens, I want to keep these relationships close, so I’ll make sure everyone’s needs are met.
Seeking harmony and peace. What problem? People appreciate my calming presence during an ordeal… I accommodate others to avoid conflict… It’s not a big deal. Everything will be okay.
Of course, denying or diminishing a problem leads to all sorts of new problems: the unresolved issue keeps coming up and others are offended by the dismissal of their very real concerns. These people are great problem-solvers too, especially when they allow themselves to feel the difficulty in themselves and take in how it impacts others.
Annoying or Endearing? When we witness problem-solving strategies different from our own, we can react with frustration, criticism, hurt feelings, suspicion, intolerance, etc. Imagine ‘restore the peace’ parent trying to solve a problem with a teenager who falls into despair at the slightest difficulty. Or a parent with a ‘loving helper’ style whose 22-year-old gets loud and angry when things don’t go her way. How easily our different styles can lead into bigger misunderstandings. So now I invite you to open your heart and appreciate these different ways of facing obstacles. None is better than the other and they’re all motivated by the desire to find a good solution. All of them. Even your child’s way. Even if it doesn’t feel like it to you. When you’re annoyed about a behaviour in your kids, stop to question your annoyance. Seen from another angle, with a bigger heart, it may actually be acceptable and admirable. And even endearing.
What are the differences between your problem-solving style and your child’s? In what ways are you triggered by or judging their approach? What are the merits of their way? What will be required of you to make room for their way in your heart? What might that acceptance make possible?
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Photo by Tomoe Steineck on Unsplash