Great conflict resolution starts with great problem finding

A group of students at the Art Institute of Chicago approached two large tables holding 27 random objects. They’d been asked to select some objects and draw a still life. Some examined just a few items, selected ones that interested them, and got right down to drawing. Others handled more of the objects, turning them over many times before selecting the ones that interested them. They rearranged their chosen objects several times and took longer to complete the assigned still life.

problem finding

Two University of Chicago social scientists were watching. Jacob Getzels and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (whose renowned book Flow I’ve used in my grad courses over the years) then asked a panel of art experts to evaluate the resulting works without telling them the source of the drawings or anything about the study they were conducting.

The results were intriguing. The art experts judged the second group’s work as far more creative than the first group’s work. What’s more, in follow-ups about 5 years and 18 years after the study, those who’d taken the second approach were more likely to remain artists and have had success in the art world.

What differentiated the first group from the second? Csikszentmihalyi characterized the first group of students as problem solvers who were asking themselves, “How can I produce a good drawing?” He characterized the second group as problem finders who were asking themselves, “What good drawing can I produce?” Said Getzels, “The quality of the problem that is found is a forerunner of the quality of the solution that is attained.”

It’s true in conflict resolution, too. Creative conflict problem solving doesn’t start with the question, “How can we resolve this conflict?” It starts with the question, “How can we find a good solution together?”

It starts with questions like, “How is the way we’re framing this problem limiting the solutions available to us?” and “What are other interesting ways we can frame the problem we’re trying to resolve?” and “How can we re-frame this problem as an opportunity?

Great conflict resolution starts with great problem finding.

[HT to Dan Pink's book To Sell Is Human: The Surprising Truth About Moving Others for the Getzels and Csikszentmihalyi story.]

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  1. Paul O. Barone says

    Brilliant! “The quality of the problem that is found is a forerunner of the quality of the solution that is attained.” I would appreciate you allowing me to share this with the inmates I mentor on a daily basis? What a vision you have given me this morning!



    • says

      Paul – It’s a great story, isn’t it? The quote is Getzels’ so no need to ask me for permission to reuse it or the story. Glad you can use it with the folks you’re mentoring.

  2. says

    Thanks, Tammy, for another great post. Love the quotes from Getzels and Csikszentmihalyi. And It sounds like you liked Dan Pink’s new book, too. I found it much more about being human than selling, and I was also attracted to the idea of problem-finding vs. problem-solving. Sending ki! – Judy

  3. Iana CraneWing says

    This insight, that of FINDING the problem, is the puzzle piece I have been missing lately. I remember learning the importance of reframing but my experience is that sometimes my ego gets involved trying to reframe “correctly”. I welcome being corrected when I get it wrong but I notice that people will often accept a reframe because it is coming from an “expert” even if it isn’t a great fit for what they are experiencing. In that case I continue to flounder inside to find a better reframe. This is lonely and anxiety provoking. So to think of this as collective problem finding is a breakthrough for me. It brings a delightfully experimental atmosphere of discovery back to the room for all parties, not just the mediator. I am looking forward to trying this new insight out. Thanks for the great idea and references Tammy!