In my recent article “Dealing With Problems That Can’t Be Fixed,” I promised to follow up with a discussion of things that can be changed. If a situation is bad, there are circumstances in which we can’t do anything about it–for example, for most of us the recent Deepwater Horizon oil spill was such a situation (although even in instances like this we’re not completely powerless, as I’ll discuss in my upcoming article on ways we can affect the world). When we have little or no opportunity to change a situation, then in a way the situation is no longer our problem; instead, our challenge is to address our own feelings about the situation, as discussed in last week’s article.
But what about situations where we do have some control, influence, or future prospects? If you hate your job, does that mean it’s time to quit your job, or time to change your attitude toward your work? (See “6 Ways to Be Happy at a Job You Don’t Like“). If you’re having a lousy marriage, does that mean you should divorce, or that you should work on finding ways to be happier together? If you’re failing your first year of college, should you stay even though you think your chances of succeeding are slim or quit?
Questions that point the way
Although there’s no one simple answer to questions like these, often it comes down to one of three options:
- Stay and work on it
- Stay and reconcile yourself, or
These choices don’t apply to every single situation, but they do to most. Which one we choose depends on questions like the ones that follow. Asking questions like these helps us focus on key issues about our situation.
By the way, it’s best to answer these questions out loud–whether to yourself or while talking with a friend–or in writing, since this will lead to more specific, focused responses than quiet thought would do.
- Do you have direct control over or responsibility for the problem? Note that this includes situations that feel out of control but that you are the sole actor in, such as eating habits or organization.
- If you don’t have control, do you have some direct influence? Is there someone you can talk to, a request you can make, or an action you can take to encourage things to go in the right direction?
- If you don’t have direct influence, do you have indirect influence? For example: if you want to be promoted, are there things you can do to stand out better at your job? If you want to be picked for a team or performing group, can you expand your practice schedule?
- How much does this problem really matter? This isn’t always the same question as “how much do you care about this problem?” because it’s possible for us to get really worked up about things that may not necessarily be very important. (See “How emotions work“)
- How much impact will your efforts be likely to make? If you’re worried about a situation in your neighborhood, you’re likely to be able to have more direct impact than if the problem is national or international, for instance. This doesn’t mean that you should only direct your efforts towards small or local things, only that it’s worth considering how big your contribution can be.
- If one or more other people are involved, are their aspirations the same as yours? If they’re not, are you necessarily in conflict, or is it possible there might be an approach that could work for everyone, or at least for more people than the existing options would help? I’m not talking about compromise here, although I don’t deny that has some value in its place, but instead about getting away from the idea that when two people don’t agree, they necessarily have to duke it out. An excellent resource for learning how to work with someone who’s opposed to you is psychologist Marshall Rosenberg’s Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life. Another great book for navigating difficult negotiations is Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes are High. If you’re really interested in learning how to make constructive solutions in the midst of conflicts, either or both of these books can be invaluable.