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Focus On Problems Before Solutions When Helping Others

We are all familiar with the skills that a good medical general practitioner uses when a patient arrives at the surgery with a physical ailment. The doctor begins by getting on the right wavelength and establishing rapport. This is followed by questions to help to understand the problem and make a diagnosis. Only after concentrating on the matter in this way does the doctor offer possible solutions.

Following a similar process can be helpful when we are seeking to influence team colleagues or clients. Sometimes, however, in our haste to resolve issues and take action we move to solutions too rapidly and as a result produce inadequate or even wrong answers. Dick McCann in his book How to Influence Others at Work (1988) has produced a straightforward and effective model to assist us to concentrate on problems before arriving at solutions when helping others. The model is shown in Model for helping others to solve problems , and an examination of its component parts follows.


This is getting on the right wavelength and establishing rapport with those to be influenced. Useful techniques include:

Talking on neutral subjects, or small talk, to test the ground and relationships, for instance weather, sport, television programmes and traffic congestion.

Adjusting behaviour to that of the person being influenced. This is known as mirroring. For example, voice tempo and tone can be modified to come some way towards that of the other person. If he talks quickly then you adjust your speed accordingly to some degree. If she talks slowly then you do likewise. This has to be done with care, of course, to avoid mimicry. If she is full of enthusiasm and you are laid back try to step up the pace, but only to a degree. It can also be helpful to mirror physical behaviour. For instance, rapport is more likely if you stand when the other person is standing. Leaning slightly towards someone who is leaning towards you is preferable to leaning away if you want to be on the same wavelength. This happens naturally with people who are comfortable with each other. If necessary it can be contrived, to a degree, with positive results. But don’t overdo it!

If you need to influence people who are agitated or fed up then use either ‘feeling-facts’ or ‘fact-feelings’ loops during the pacing phase. For instance, suppose that you have someone working for you who is under pressure to produce a draft of the team’s business plan by the end of the week. You need to talk to her to change some basic assumptions a day before her deadline. She is agitated and angry, as a result, and you need to calm her before getting down to business. Using a ‘feeling–facts loop’ is a useful way to cope with the problem. See FeelingñFacts Loop.

As you can see you start with a ‘feeling statement’ and, in quick succession, mention three relevant and pertinent facts and then back to a ‘feeling statement’. You demonstrate your sympathy with her annoyance and back that sympathy up with appropriate facts. Starting and finishing with a ‘feeling statement’ helps to calm her down.

Contrast this with the need to influence a person who is feeling low and fed up. This time the requirement at the pacing stage is to ‘lift the spirits’ before getting down to business. This time you use a ‘fact–feelings loop’. Suppose that you have a designer working for you who has done a first-class piece of work on a proposal but the assignment has been lost to a competitor. See Fact-feelings loop .

In this case you start with a ‘fact statement’ and, in quick succession, back it up with three relevant and appropriate ‘feeling statements’ and then back to a ‘fact statement’. You demonstrate that good work was done and support that fact with feelings of sympathy over the lost business. Starting and finishing with a ‘fact statement’ helps to lift his spirits when the fact represents good news.


It is advantageous when influencing others to distinguish between those parts of the discussion that relate to the problem and those parts that relate to the solution. Problem enquiry is a way of helping the other person to explore all of the possibilities surrounding an issue and to bring out information that might be useful in the resolution of the problem. It is important to try to see through the smokescreens, misunderstandings and differing perceptions that may cloud the matter. Questioning technique is important. The use of ‘softeners’, which are questions that take the edge off stark interrogating styles, is helpful during the early phases of the enquiry stage. Questions like ‘To what extent do you think . . . ?’, ‘I wonder whether . . . ?’ and ‘Do you think it would be useful if . . . ?’ are helpful ‘softeners’. Another technique to soften the interrogative style is to intersperse factual enquiries with feeling enquiries.

Having said that, there is no doubt that questions that begin with the interrogatives ‘what’, ‘where’, ‘when’, ‘why’, ‘how’ and ‘who’ tend to provide more useful answers than questions that begin with verbs, such as ‘Do you . . . ?’, ‘Can you . . . ?’, ‘Will you . . . ?’ and ‘Have you . . . ?’

During the enquiry phase it is important to check for generalizations, incomplete arguments, mind reading, unjustified sweeping statements and implied cause and effect. Here are some examples:

Generalization – ‘Something should be done to rectify the situation.’ Questions to obtain clarification – What should be done? What situation are you referring to?

Incomplete argument – ‘The programmers claim that they have been victimized.’

Questions to obtain clarification – Who do they consider is victimizing them? To whom are they claiming victimization?

Mind reading – ‘Everybody in this team is waiting for Jim to cock it up.’

Questions to obtain clarification – How did you discover that? How do you know that?

Unjustified sweeping statement – ‘People should avoid conflict.’

Questions to obtain clarification – What would happen if you had to confront conflict?

What do you believe is the eventual outcome of sweeping conflict under the carpet?

Implied cause and effect – ‘I would like to do a good job on this project but I don’t have the time.’

Questions to obtain clarification – If you had the time would you be able to do it?

Why is time a problem for you?


The third stage is to undertake the diagnosis. This is to identify the cause of the problem. In its simplest form a diagnosis indicates the cause or reason for something occurring. It is a good idea to help the person being influenced to arrive at her or his own diagnosis. Successful self-analysis generally encourages a greater willingness to resolve the problem and take appropriate action.


Use questions that lead the person being influenced to work towards his or her own solutions. Use questions like:

‘How could you do that differently?’

‘What could you do more of?’

‘What could you do less of?’

‘How can your project be completed on time?’

‘What can you do to prevent this from happening again?’

When appropriate, use examples, stories and illustrations from your own experience that are relevant to the problem to help the process along. As at the diagnosis stage, it is beneficial, for similar reasons of ownership and commitment, to help the person being influenced to come up with his or her own solution.


If you fail to get the person being influenced to arrive at a solution than it may be necessary to make some proposals to help the problem to be resolved. You are more likely to exercise influence if you have gone through all of the earlier stages described than if you jump straight into the proposal phase. It is better, also, to prefix your proposals with a ‘softener’ phrase. For example:

‘I think that perhaps you should consider . . . ‘

‘I suggest that . . . ‘

‘It might be a good idea if . . . ‘

‘You might like to . . . ‘

‘How about . . . ?’

‘It seems to me that a good way forward would be . . . ‘

Another effective way is to frame proposals in question format: ‘Are you able to talk to the meeting on Tuesday, please?’ or ‘Can you have this report written by next Wednesday, please?’


Generally speaking, techniques of persuading should only be used after sufficient time has been spent on the other phases. Persuading sometimes becomes necessary if the person being influenced has not managed, with your help, to come up with a solution to the problem. It is also a useful device for removing any seeds of doubt as to whether the right decision has already been made. It is a particularly good skill to use when seeking to influence a group of people. Useful techniques for persuading others include:

Use colourful illustrations, stories, metaphors and analogies. We have already seen in Chapter 5 on communications that it is a good idea, however, to avoid old, overused metaphors, which tend to be boring clichés. Original metaphors, however, work. They draw attention to the relationships of ideas, images and symbols. Good and original metaphors give two ideas for one. They help to simplify complicated issues. They capture the imagination.

Use sensory-based words. People’s interpretations of the world, ideas and events are partly influenced by their senses of sight, sound, touch and smell. Most of us find that our interpretations are helped by one of the sensory channels rather more than by the others. For example, the word ‘snow’ will summon up distinct sensory experiences in the imagination and thought processes of different people. Some will see in their imagination ‘a beautiful snow-clad mountain on a sunny day’; others will almost feel ‘the exuberance of skiing down a steep slope’; some may virtually hear ‘the squeals of joy as young children throw snowballs’; and yet others will all but smell ‘the crisp early morning air’. Of course the sensory images may be quite different, such as ‘ seeing oneself struggling through a blizzard’; or ‘feeling cold feet and hands’; or ‘hearing the swish of cars moving through the slush’; or ‘smelling a sodden pet dog’.

When trying to persuade others it is useful to choose words that will help people to paint pictures in their minds of events yet to occur; to judge circumstances by evoking memories through sound; or to evaluate situations in terms of their feelings. To cope with the range of individual preferences it is helpful to use sensory saturation. It means appealing to a number of the sensory channels, rather than just one, especially when trying to persuade a group of people to accept a point of view. It involves sprinkling conversations and presentations with a variety of sensory-based words and phrases. Here are a few examples of visual words: ‘look’, ‘see’, ‘notice’, ‘reveal’, ‘reflect’, ‘examine’ and ‘insight’. Possible visual phrases are: ‘I see what you mean’; ‘we see eye to eye’; ‘beyond a shadow of doubt’; and ‘that will shed some light on the matter’. Auditory words include ‘say’, ‘tone’, ‘resonate’, ‘ring’, ‘ dissonant’ and ‘harmonious’. Auditory phrases include ‘on the same wavelength’; ‘rings a bell’; ‘loud and clear’; and ‘music to my ears’. Feeling words include ‘touch’, ‘warm’, ‘heavy’, ‘grasp’, ‘suffer’ and ‘tangible’. Feeling phrases include ‘I can grasp that idea’; ‘I can’t put my finger on it’; ‘scratch the surface’; and ‘firm foundation’. Sensory saturation is frequently used in television advertisements. It is instructive to analyse them in terms of the sensory channels to which they are appealing.

Use ‘fat’ words (ostentatious diction). Fat words, expressed enthusiastically, can be helpful in persuading and motivating others. These words, often strong on rhetoric and rather weaker on substance, such as ‘lifestyle’, ‘epoch-making’, ‘loyalty’, ‘dream’, ‘spirit’, ‘beacon’ and ‘ liberty’, can be effective when seeking to persuade groups of people, for instance in meetings. They are useful, also, to help to get commitment at the end of a conversation or talk, the rest of which may have been more measured in terms of the words used. They are less effective, however, in the written form or in one-to-one encounters.

Use implied cause-and-effect relationships and express them with enthusiasm. This approach is best demonstrated by the use of example statements:

‘When you attend this workshop you will feel that you have done the right thing.’

‘Just seeing the car in action will make you want to buy.’

‘As you read the book you will realize that the ideas expressed will help you in your day-to-day leadership.’

‘As we watched the demonstration of the software package we could immediately see the benefits for our business.’


Summarizing is shown in the centre of the model. It is so positioned because summarizing can and should be used, at several stages, during both problem analysis and generating solutions. Summarizing statements help to tie the fragments of a conversation together. They also allow for checking, that there is mutual understanding, that both individuals are travelling on the same road and that there is agreement up to the point of the summary. Frequent summarizing is especially important when there is conflict over goals or interests.