Be the bedouin: Spend more time understanding before problem solving

be the bedouin

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.

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  1. says

    This is a real gem Tammy! In prep I do say to parties that spending time getting everyone to the right place before we start "solution grinding" is time well spent. I even liken it to decorating a wall – if you don't do the filling and sanding thoroughly then the finish you get will be disappointing and you may even have to go back and start again.

    I can't remember how many times people have said that they were delighted with the outcome of the mediation and then added as a rider "but I think we could have got there much sooner". I have a specially prepared enigmatic smile for just such an occasion. Now, thanks to you, I have another wonderful metaphor. It is much more powerful when you can attribute something you learned to an esteemed colleague. :)

  2. says

    Hi Tammy – great story. It reminded of a movie I just watched (actually I think it was a PBS movie) called End Game about the secret conversations between some people delegated by the South African government, not representatives but approved, and the ANC. They met in the UK for conversation for years before there was enough understanding and trust to move to actual negotiations.

  3. Doc Mwale says

    The law of attraction says we attract what we already have.

    What has it taken for Tammy to attract the outcomes all these testimonies are talking aboutfrom the world all over?

  4. Madeleine Bass says

    I didn't catch this story the first time around, Tammy, so I'm so glad you reposted! This is a great tip to share with students and clients.

  5. says

    I love this post not just because of the general tendency we can have to leap to solutions before agreeing on the problem but also because of the cultural divide it highlights. When we operate from differing assumptions (each "up our own ladder" in Argyris/Senge terms) judgement often ensues and with judgment comes a closing of the mind. A lovely parable to keep our minds open and curious.
    Thanks for this and your many other pearls of wisdom.

  6. says

    This is brilliant. I understand this example not only in how it relates to one mediation session, but also in the overall pace of all the mediation sessions. I find that divorcing couples feel the need to make decisions quickly and they look to enter into permanent agreements (usually on child custody issues) too soon-maybe even before they are living separately. As a mediator, I can take all the time in the world to understand my clients, but they also need to understand themselves and their new lives (how fast they can walk) before agreeing to something that doesn't work.

    • says

      Well said, Alison. I think that for divorcing couples, part of what's going on is the drive to get it over and done with and they race through the groan zone in that zealousness. Good mediators like you know to help them slow down and be sure they're making good decisions that will stand the test of time.

  7. Robin Eichert says

    Brilliant! We’re in such a rush to get to the next conversation, meeting, or event so we can be more productive, but rushing doesn’t get us the best results. great story to illustrate this!

    • says

      It’s funny…when I’m with clients, time ceases to exist in some ways and I am fully present with them, wherever they are. I’ve had to work much harder, and much more consciously, to achieve the same results in my own life when timelines press against me, as my husband would attest! Now to be as patient with myself as I am with my clients.

  8. says

    In an article I read a long time ago it was suggested that you ask WHY” three times before even thinking of a solution. I don’t remember who the author of the article was but really digging to find out what problem you are trying to solve may bring you to the real issue. I love this post, Tammy, because it reminds me once again to listen and ask better questions. We can use this every day too.