The Power Of Words OR Alternatively The Problem With Problem Solving
I’m a firm believer in the power of words: To understand something, one needs to give it a name. To be able to capture the essence of something, we need to have a word or phrase to describe it.
In the novel, A Wizard of Earthsea, calling someone by its true name gives you power over what you are calling. Magic requires you to call out the true name for things to happen. Even in Harry Potter, to be able to cast spells, you need to know the name of the spell.
In the real world, a good chunk of what we value and how we work is done in the abstract. Concepts, frameworks, and the like give us the power to organise the raw, natural, messy way of life. It’s how our brains make sense of things. For example, “butterflies in my stomach” or alternatively “kilig” in Filipino captures that raw emotion and feeling allowing us to share our understanding of it with others. I don’t think conveying or sharing that feeling would be possible had we not had a label for it.
Similar to that of a true name, labels and words have a strong power over the way we see things. We label things after all according to how we perceive them. And from my experience, it’s been a massive help. I’m able to learn from different people across countries, cultures, and even time and space, thanks to words and literature. Heck, my previous post was about the joy of learning!
Yet despite the there is a danger as well in it. Specifically on how we call things problems. I’ve worked both in the corporate setting and a more start-up/tech space. Throughout various literature I’ve read up on the field of innovation and design, the concept of problem solving is mentioned. Even back in the academe from an executive course I’ve taken to college and even my college organisations, I’ve come across problem solving or variations and things related to it such as case studies, clients, and the like. Clearly, problem solving is here to stay. And it definitely should! However, I couldn’t help but have an unsettling feeling about it. It was only after reading Works Of Heart’s article on their pivot in direction that I was able to understand why:
“We even had a discussion about the words we use. Our resolve was to not use words that were empty, and to not fall into the trap of using buzzwords that do not accurately convey our intentions. We talked about the privilege and imposition that comes with using common industry terms such as “problem” and “solution,” and why we wanted to move past these usual ways of framing design. It was not enough to say we wanted “change” and be done with it; instead, we needed to be more tangible and exact: what kind of change?”
Privilege? Imposition? How so? In work, we talk about wanting to solve the problems of people. It’s where words such as customer-centric come in. For us to be able to make sense out of the situation, we would bucket or classify them according to different problems, problem statements if you will. It allows us to tackle things systematically after all.
Yet in labelling things as problems and in turn identifying us as the problem-solvers, I believe subconsciously we put ourselves in a higher level of power over whoever or whatever we’re working on. From there, things become slippery. We begin to forget that we’re no longer dealing with things that are ultimately abstract in nature. We’re dealing with people.
Our work wherever it may be will have another in the receiving end. From B2B, B2C, hybrids, and the like, we’re still dealing with people. And for us to label their situation as problems to be solved feels very privileged. It could lead to us disconnecting from the reality they’re dealing with, focusing only on what we’ve imposed on them as their problem, rather than asking what it is they’re really struggling with in the first place. Similar to the idea of using a hammer thinking every problem is a nail.
Again, I don’t mean to say that we should just stop whatever we’re doing to help address those challenges. The situation we’re in is far better than selling them a problem that they may not really have. At the very least, we’re beginning to realise that for us to do good work, we need to solve actual problems they have. But moreover, we need to remember the dignity of people. Every time we deal with data, what we should keep in mind is that these do not reflect the complete reality of a person. That there is more to them than these “problems”. It’s why I believe lasting impact is crazy difficult. For whatever impact we’d like to have, it requires a person to change their behaviour.
Have you ever been told to do something? Have you ever felt happy in being told what to do? I haven’t. There’s always that sense of rebellion in being told what to do, and that’s what I feel may happen if we continue to forget the dignity of the person.
So what now? What do we do to change this? I think it goes back to how I began. With the power of words. On the technical, there’s nothing wrong with classifying things as problems. But let’s reframe the way we think about who we work with from clients into partners. How do we meet people where they are rather than imposing what they should be feeling and should be dealing with. It’s a call to dare I say it, empathy. The willingness to step into the situation of another in the most genuine way possible. Not because they’re a problem to be solved, but rather, because it’s our obligation as fellow human beings to help one another out. Next time you talk about problems, I hope you remind yourself that there’s always another person who’s going to be affected rather than just numbers on your screen.
If you have any recommendations or suggestions for topics, books, articles, podcasts and the like that you’d want me to learn more about, feel free to comment below or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org