The Problem with Problem Statements
Forgoing the articulation of a problem statement and focusing on paradox leads to more effective communication with your organization’s supporters.
When crafting persuasive messages, we’re often instructed to clearly state the problem we are addressing. But there are problems with the communication of problem statements. Problems are often multi-layered, and what concerns your audience about the problem may lie outside of your message about the problem.
Also, exposing your listener to a problem—especially if that problem represents a new and strange idea—risks shutting down communication and igniting rejection. Emotions elicited by stating problems are jarringly different than emotions elicited by presenting solutions. You risk pushing your audience away, rather than pulling them toward meaningful engagement. "To the extent people can't solve a problem,” says environmentalist Tom Bowman, “they tend to ignore that problem."
And, most likely, your organization is not against something as much as it is for a solution. For example, many organizations exist to combat childhood poverty or air pollution. Your organization came into being because you offer a unique solution to a large problem. You want to be associated with that innovative solution. Your work is about more than simply reacting to a problem; you are actively shaping a response to it.
Your audience will never (and will never need to) comprehend the problem to the extent that you and your colleagues understand it. This is where passion trips up even the best communicator: Your audience doesn’t need to be as concerned with the problem as you are. Rather, their passion for enacting change must be piqued. Your audience does not need to own the problem to own a part of the solution.
My colleague Michael Margolis recently wrote a terrific blog post, on the difference between problem and paradox when marketing a business. It got me thinking about the benefits of paradox over problem as a persuasive communication tool.
Let’s define paradox as seemingly contradictory beliefs, assumptions, and situations. Wikipedia offers three rhetorical paradoxes: Oscar Wilde's "I can resist anything except temptation," G.K. Chesterton's "Spies do not look like spies,” and the character Polonius's observation in Shakespeare’s Hamlet that "though this be madness, yet there is method in't."
Problem statements have you defining the problem as you see it. Even if your listener is nodding in agreement with your definition of a problem, they may choose not to become involved in the implementation of the solution. I’m reminded of something I heard economist James Surewicki say: “Yes/no votes are not useful because they do not measure the intensity of emotion. My ‘Yes’ may be very different than your ‘Yes.’” The truth is, there are often many different ways to view a problem, and articulating a paradox gets us much closer to the objective truth (if there is one).
Terrence E. Deal and Kent D. Peterson, in Shaping School Culture: Pitfalls, Paradoxes, and Promises, rally against the “dualistic thinking” that sees solutions to problems as choices between extreme alternatives: “In much Western thought, puzzling situations are considered simplistic problems to be solved with predetermined answers rather than puzzling dilemma begging a balanced judgment.”
Paradox welcomes multiple points of view, pathways toward understanding, and complex arguments. Allowing for paradox respects your audiences’ existing knowledge and belief systems. Presenting paradox rather than problem is likely to be a much richer source of emotional and experiential resonance with your listener. Thinking about paradox helps you to meet your listener “where they are at.”
Allowing for a discussion of paradox moves the conversation away from you, and your definition of the problem, to the audience and how participating in your solution may best fit within the complicated context of their experiences and lives. People will take action for many different reasons. To effectively communicate, you can and must tap into the complexity of your audience’s belief system.
To start playing with paradox, simply change “buts” to “ands.” This acknowledges the seemingly contradictory beliefs and values many people simultaneously hold. It also gets you well on your way to more emphatic and resonant communication.
Here are some examples:
- Autonomy and risk-taking are highly regarded in our organization, and we need more collaboration and caution among our employees.
- The immigrants in my community are strengthening it, and immigrants are changing American society and way of life.
- Women should not stay with their abusers, and divorce is not acceptable in our particular culture.
In The Story Handbook: Language and Storytelling for Land Conservationists, William Cronon explains:
It is important to emphasize that humans can hold multiple narratives, sometimes mutually exclusive. We mix and match. The conservative Roman Catholic narrative is incompatible with the narrative of liberal democracy, but that does not prevent most conservative Roman Catholics from being enthusiastic supporters of liberal democracies. The Christian narrative appears incompatible with capitalist virtues, but that does not prevent Christians from living the bourgeois life. The eco-romantic narrative appears incompatible with much of modern technology, but that does not prevent environmentalists from using the latest laptops or flying around the world to enjoy ecotourism.
Forgoing the articulation of a problem statement and instead focusing on paradox demonstrates openness. It helps check assumptions. Thinking about paradox encourages observation and curiosity. As author Maxine Hong Kingston noted, "I learned to make my mind large, as the universe is large, so that there is room for paradoxes."
There are problems with the communication of problem statements: The people with whom you are most likely speaking are not part of the problem. You are not part of the problem. Acknowledge paradox and invite your listeners to join you in your solution.