Be the bedouin: Spend more time understanding before problem solving

a tip for bridging the solution gap in conflict resolution

A man walking in the desert approached a Bedouin. “How far to the nearest oasis?” he inquired.

The Bedouin did not respond. “I said, how far is it to the nearest oasis?” the man asked, a bit more loudly this time and enunciating his words very carefully.

The Bedouin still did not respond. The man shook his head in frustration, turned, and began to walk away.

The Bedouin called out, “It will take you three hours!”

The man spun around to face the Bedouin. “Couldn’t you have told me that when I first asked?”

“No,” replied the Bedouin. “I couldn’t answer until I knew how fast you walk.”

I often advise clients to flip the understanding-to-solving ratio when resolving conflict in organizations. Instead of the typical 25% of time on understanding and 75% on solution-generating, try 75% of time on understanding the problem from multiple frames of reference.

Why? Because when you head almost straight to resolution, the only frame of reference from which you can reasonably try to solve the problem is your own. And when two or more people try to address a problem, each working primarily from their own frame of reference, there’s likely to be a solution gap.

It feels productive and ego-boosting to tick off ideas for solution, to show how creative you can be, to demonstrate how hard you’re working to find a solution that will be acceptable. But it’s terribly unproductive if you don’t yet fully understand the others’ frames of reference and make sure you’re all solving the same problem.

So: Be the Bedouin. Take the time to understand from outside your own frame of reference and discover answers and solutions that were invisible to you before.