The Art of Strengths Coaching

P is for The Positive Solutions Approach    

People can choose how they deal with challenges. Some people focus on finding positive solutions. Some find their situation overwhelming and feel paralysed. Some blame other people for the situation and fall into voicing personal abuse.

Different people do, of course, face different challenges. Looking at my own work, for example, here are some of the topics that people have wanted to explore.

“How can I move from my present job and make a living doing satisfying work? How can I manage my addictive personality? How can I help my teenager who is not particularly good at school? How can I deal with my boss who is making life difficult?

“How can we recapture the spirit we used to have in our company? How can we help a senior team member who is talented but upsets other people? How can we get two warring departments to work well together? How can we build a culture that will help us to achieve success in the future?”

This article explores some of the ways that people aim to tackle challenges. There are many models for taking this step. Whichever model is used, however, these work best when the following conditions are in place.

People must be prepared:

To take personal responsibility for helping to – as far as possible – find positive solutions.

To be patient, clarify the real results to achieve – the picture of success – and use their creativity to find positive solutions. 

To, when focusing on challenges that involve several parties, show people respect, clarify what each of the parties wants and build on the points they have in common to find positive solutions.

Looking at your own life, can you think of a time when you chose to focus on finding positive solutions? You chose to take this route rather than falling into paralysis or blaming others and voicing personal abuse.

You may have taken the positive route when managing an illness, overcoming a setback or taking the next step in your career. You may have done it when solving a conflict, helping people to improve their working relationship or doing another activity.

What did you do then to take responsibility? What did you do to clarify the results to achieve? What did you do to find and follow through on the positive solution?

If you wish, try tackling the exercise on this theme. This invites you to do the following things.

Describe a specific situation in the past when you focused on finding positive solutions. 

Describe the specific things you did then to focus on finding positive solutions.  

Describe the specific things that happened as a result of taking these steps.

This article looks at three approaches to finding solutions. These are the Three C Model, the Win-Win Model and the Third Side Model. You may, of course, be familiar with some of these and already use them in your own way.

The Three C Model

This approach helps people to reach their goals by focusing on Clarity, Creativity and Concrete Results. Let’s explore how this works in action.

Imagine that somebody has asked for your help in tackling a particular challenge. They may want to change their career, take greater care of their health, turnaround a team, develop an organisation’s culture or whatever.

The first step will be to create a safe environment in which they can feel calm and make considered decisions. Let’s assume that you have created such an environment. You can then help the person to work through the following steps.

Clarity 

Clarity is crucial in creative problem solving. A person is more likely to succeed if they clarify the real results they want to achieve – the ‘What’ – before embarking on the ‘How’.

You can go through the following stages to help a person establish clarity.

Challenges 

Invite the person to start by listing the various challenges they face. Then focus on the specific issue they want to tackle.

Invite the person to frame it in positive terms. For example: “How to stay healthy?” rather than “How to stop smoking?”

It can also be useful to write the challenge in terms of: “How to …?” For example: “How to do fulfilling work?” rather than: “I want to change my career.”

The “How to …?” phrase often encourages them to use their imagination to begin generating solutions.

If appropriate, you can also invite the person to give more background about the situation. This can help when focusing on their priorities.

Bearing this in mind, invite the person to complete the following sentences.

Clarity

Looking at the challenge the person wants to tackle, ask them:

“What are the real results you want to achieve?”

Sometimes this process takes a little time, but it is a vital step in creative problem solving.

Let’s explore one example of how this works in practice. Imagine your client is a leader. One of the key challenges they face is:

“How to motivate difficult people in the organisation?”

Looking beyond this issue, however, what are the real results they want to achieve? After some exploration, they may eventually conclude that the real ‘What’ is:

“How to build a successful organisation?”

The strategies for achieving this goal may be much more extensive – and effective – than those involved in tackling the first issue they mentioned.

“But surely you have to turnaround difficult people in an organisation,” somebody may say.

Not necessarily. Great leaders communicate the team’s purpose, principles and picture of success. They also explain the reasons why it will be important for people to follow the principles.

They then invite people: a) To decide if they would like to follow these professional principles; b) To show how they want to contribute to achieving the picture of success.

People can choose whether they want to be part of making it happen. If so, they can make clear contracts about how they want to contribute towards achieving the goals.

Let’s consider another example. During one session a father asked how to help Tom, his son, to be better at passing school exams. Both of Tom’s parents had been good at school and believed in paper qualifications.

Tom had other gifts, however, such as being a trader. He did a paper-round, plus had a Saturday job in a music store.

So was the goal to help Tom to pass exams or to enable him to develop a fulfilling career? The father eventually decided to encourage Tom to build on his strengths and pursue his route as a trader.

Let’s return to the specific challenge the person wants to explore. Invite them to do two things.

First, to clarify the real results they want to achieve. If appropriate, brainstorm all these goals.

Second, to list these results in order of priority. Invite them to complete the following sentences.

Controllables

Let’s assume the person is clear on the results they want to achieve. Before pitching into finding solutions, however, it is good to do a reality check.

Peak performers control the controllables. They build on what they can control and manage what they can’t control. The same rule applies to your client.

Imagine that they want to build a good relationship with their manager. They can control their own attitude and try to make clear working contracts. But they cannot control their manager’s behaviour or what the manager says about them.

Bearing this in mind, they can aim to act as a total professional. Things may or may not work out, but they will have done their best.

Returning to the results your client wants to achieve, invite them to describe the things they can control in the situation.

Imagine the person has clarified the challenge, the results to achieve and the controllables. It’s now time to move on to the possible creative solutions.

Creativity

Let’s return to one of the challenges mentioned earlier. Imagine your client is a leader who has been charged with turning around an organisation.

At first the issue seemed to be: “How to motivate difficult people in the organisation?” But they concluded that the real ‘What’ was:

“How to build a successful organisation?”

Let’s assume they are also crystal clear on what will be happening by a certain date. They have clear targets regarding the profits, products and people. For example, they may say:

“The profits will be … The product quality – including customer satisfaction ratings – will be … The people morale ratings will be …”

They will then move onto finding imaginative ways to achieve the goals. This often involves going through the process of exploring the choices, consequences and creative solutions. Let’s consider these stages.

Choices 

Bearing in mind the goals they want to achieve, explore the possible options they can pursue.

If the client is a leader who wants to build a successful organisation, for example, they have a number of possibilities. These include:

a) To tweak the organisation a little and hope that things improve. (Not the best option, but it is still an option.)

b) To take a command and control policy, focus on the detail and drive everybody towards the goals.

c) To concentrate on the profitable parts of the business and cut everything else.

d) To put everybody through a change programme geared to people changing their behaviour and delivering the goods.

e) To maintain some parts of the present business, but build prototypes that demonstrate how the business could be successful in the future.

Looking at the goal they want to achieve, invite the client to outline the possible options they can follow. Once these are out in the open, it will be time to go onto the next stage, considering the implications.

Consequences 

Looking at each option in turn, they can consider the respective pluses and minuses.

Great decision makers, for example, often base their decisions on the consequences of each option rather than the options themselves. They then build on the pluses and minimise the minuses.

Depending on the challenge they face, the client can outline the various options. They can then rate the attractiveness of each option on a scale 0 – 10.

Creative Solutions 

Looking at the goals the client wants to achieve, are there any other possible creative solutions?

You can help them to explore these by recapping what has been covered and perhaps asking some of the following questions.

“Let’s start by re-establishing your goals. What are the real results you want to achieve? How can you do your best to achieve these results? 

“Let’s look at the different options you have outlined. Is it possible to take the best parts from each option and create a new road? If so, how would this look in practice?

“Looking at your goals, try to identify what might be the most successful strategies. Ask yourself: ‘What are the three key things I can do to give myself the greatest chance of success?’ 

“One approach is to learn from your positive history. Looking back, have you ever been in a similar situation and managed it successfully? What did you do right then? Is it possible to follow any of these principles to achieve the goals? 

“Let’s explore what you can learn from best practice. Are there any other people, teams or organisations that have managed this kind of challenge successfully? What did they do right then? How can you follow these principles in your own way?

“Sometimes we can get too close to events. Imagine for a moment that you are a consultant who is hired to give tough but fair advice. What advice would you give yourself to tackle the challenge and reach your goals? 

“Let’s conclude by exploring any other options. Looking at the challenge: Is there anything else you can do? Are there any imaginative possibilities? Are there any other creative solutions?”

Invite the client to keep going until they feel they have explored all the possible options. They can then complete the following sentence.

Concrete Results

It is then time to translate the ideas in action. The person can do this by going through the following stages.

Conclusions

Looking at the various ways forward, they can settle on the route they want to follow. Sometimes they will choose to pursue one main option, sometimes to pursue multiple options.

What will be the pluses and minuses involved? How can they build on the pluses and minimise the minuses? Looking at the results they want to achieve, invite them to complete the following sentence.

Contracting

Looking at the road ahead, invite the person to consider if they need to make any contracts with people.

Their main contract, of course, is with themselves. Looking at the whole package – the pluses and minuses involved – do they want to make the inner commitment to achieving the goals?

If so, they may also need to make clear working contracts with other people who can help them to reach the goals. Invite them to complete the following sentences.

Concrete Results

There are many models for tackling challenges. Here we have focused on clarity, creativity and concrete results. You can adapt this approach in your own way, of course, to help the client to achieve their picture of success.

Bearing this in mind, you can invite them to complete the following step. The person can make a clear action plan and build in some early successes. This can help to create positive momentum on the route to achieving their goals.

Let’s move on to another approach to finding positive solutions to challenges.

The Win-Win Model

 

Imagine that you have been asked to help people to resolve differences between them. This could be a married couple that are experiencing difficulties, two departments that are blaming each other or some other kinds of warring parties.

Your aim will be to help people to, as far as possible, find a win-win solution. Win-lose creates ongoing problems, whilst lose-lose spells trouble for everybody.

People can sometimes find solutions to challenges by taking the following steps. They start by building on common ground – the things they have in common – and get some quick successes.

They then move on to finding ways to manage their differences. Sometimes this takes time, but it is often possible. People then translate their ideas into action and keep working to achieve ongoing success.

Let’s return to the situation where you may have been asked to help people to manage their differences. Here are some points to consider before going into the situation.

You can make sure the conditions are
in place for finding a win-win solution 

Two conditions must be in place before it is possible to solve deep differences.

People must want to solve the conflict.

People must be prepared to work hard to find – as far as possible – win-wins.

Timing is everything. Many conflicts only get resolved when the parties are exhausted. Couples feel weary from fighting a divorce, terrorists became too old or too tired to fight, employers and strikers are exhausted after an industrial dispute.

People get tired of the negative energy. They are then more willing to sit down and find positive solutions. Before getting involved in any conflict resolution, it is important to ask the following questions.

Are people ready to work together? 

Do they really want to solve the problem? Remember, some people are addicted to conflict.

Are people prepared to co-operate to find
as far as possible – a win-win solution? 

How high is their motivation to do this on a scale 0 – 10? People need to score at least a 7+ to have a chance of producing success.

Are people ready to focus on how
things can be better in the future?

This is crucial. Some people want to simply argue about the past and allocate blame. Whilst it may be vital to admit mistakes, the key is to focus on how to create a positive future.

Providing people want to solve the problem, it is then possible to move onto the next step.

Building On Common Ground 

Start by clarifying what each person or each party wants. Focus on what people have in common rather than the differences. Some may try to draw you into arguing about the differences, but return to the similarities.

The key is to clarify what people have in common regarding the ‘What’ – the picture of success. People often want similar things, but they get into arguments about ‘How’ to achieve the goals.

Imagine you are working with divorcing parents. You can start by focusing on the shared aims they have in common. They may get into arguments, but both will probably say they want the best for their children.

You can then build on this shared aim. There will be lots of time later to explore the differences. The common goal may be, for example, the children’s welfare after a divorce. In other situations the common goal may be a team’s mission or the kind of world we want to pass on to future generations.

Providing you are clear on the agreed overall goals, you may then say something along the following lines.

The ‘What’ – The Common Goals

“As far as I understand it, goals you would like to achieve are:

“To …

“To …

“To … 

The Benefits

“The benefits of achieving these goals will be:

“To … 

“To … 

“To …

“Is this something you want to work towards achieving? If so, we can then look at how to achieve these common goals.”

Mediators create a safe environment in which people feel at ease. They listen to what each person perceives as the challenge. They then aim to build a common agenda.

They keep bringing people back to the ‘What’ – the real results they want to achieve. This can be challenging because – as mentioned earlier – people often want to get into arguing about the ‘How’.

The key is to keep returning to the ‘What’. This calls for following certain rules. It is important:

To show respect and recognise the authenticity of each person’s feelings because everybody must feel they have been heard.

To encourage people to look to the future rather than fight about the past.

To get people to be super specific about the desired outcome by asking: “What are the real results you want to achieve?”

To encourage the parties to put the challenge in positive terms. For example: “How can we work together to achieve success?” Rather than: “Why can’t we stop fighting?”

To build on the common ground, get some quick success and begin to build confidence.

You can use the following framework to map out: a) The specific things each party wants; b) The shared results they want to achieve; c) The potential differences.

It is then important to build on what people have in common. Help people to get some early successes, create confidence and build trust.

Managing Differences

You can now move onto the differences. Start by establishing clarity. Looking at each difference in turn, clarify what each person/party wants.

Stay calm and invite people to use their creativity. When it comes to the sticking points, keep asking:

“How can we find a win-win solution?” 

Be patient. People are incredibly creative, so keep asking this question until they solve the problem. If appropriate, you can share possible ideas, but it is vital to show that you respect each person’s agenda.

If tempers rise, take a break and have a cooling off period. Return to the beginning and establish if people still want to solve the problem. If so, resume the exploration.

Keep going until they find – as far as possible – a win-win solution. Again, build on the good work by getting an early success. You can encourage people:

To set clear goals.

To make clear contracts about each person’s contribution.

To get concrete results.

Success breeds success and mutual confidence. People can then move onto the next topic where they want to find a win-win solution.

Let’s return to the example where you may have been asked to help with a difficult situation. Focus on one specific difference and try completing the following sentences.

Sounds easy in theory: but it is obviously much harder in daily life. If people want to solve the problem, however, it is often possible to find creative solutions. The basic rules apply.

People will be more motivated to find positive solutions when they feel the pluses will outweigh the minuses.

People need to feel that they will get more pleasure and less pain in the future.

People will then apply their creativity to find and implement positive solutions.

So how do painful problems get solved? There are several answers.

Some don’t, people go on fighting. Some do because people lose interest. They get tired, accept the differences or move-on with their lives. Some do because people work hard at solving the problem.

You can focus on situations that fall into the latter category. Equipping people to find win-win solutions can provide them with a tool for life.

The Third Side Model

This section explores how to use the Third Side approach to help people achieve common goals. William Ury, who co-wrote Getting To Yes with Roger Fisher, has often used this method. You can discover more about William’s approach via the following link.

William Ury

The following piece looks at another way of using the Third Side. It is an approach that has proved successful in helping people to work towards common goals. As mentioned earlier, negotiators often say something along the following lines.

“The key is to start by focusing on the areas of agreement, because this sets the tone and builds confidence. You can also aim to get some quick successes. 

“People will then feel more able to move on to the areas of disagreement and find solutions. It you start with the areas of disagreement, you are less likely to achieve success.”

Imagine the scene. Two parties are arguing about an issue. They each believe they are right and the other is wrong. This script is repeated by divorcing couples, departments fighting each other and nations going to war.

People can get into difficulties because they ‘sit opposite each other’ and fight for their own agendas. Each party says the equivalent of: “I am right,” or “Our side is right.” “You are wrong.” These are the First and Second Sides.

People are more likely to solve things if they can sit ‘side by side’ and look together towards a Third Side. This Third Side can be the greater goal, the mission, the company’s picture of success or whatever.

This is the greater ‘What’ and ‘Why’. People often get into arguments about the ‘How’, but it is important to focus on the higher purpose.

This purpose may be, for example, the children’s welfare after a divorce, the team’s mission, the company’s goals or the kind of world we want to pass on to future generations.

If you are a facilitator, you can encourage the interested parties to look together at a compelling Third Side. (We will look at how to do this later in the article.)

Providing you are clear on the agreed overall goals, you can then say things like:

“These are the goals to achieve. This is the picture of success. These are the benefits of achieving the goals.

“Is this something you want to work towards achieving?

“If so, how can you do your best to contribute to achieving the goals? How can you help other people to achieve the goals?”

“That sounds simple in theory,” somebody may say. “But how does it work in practice?”

Let’s explore this approach. Before doing so, however, it is worth recalling the key conditions that we mentioned before. Most conflicts only get solved when the following conditions are in place.

People must want to solve the conflict.

People must be prepared to work hard to – as far as possible – find win-wins.

Timing is everything. Many conflicts only get resolved when the parties are exhausted.

Couples feel weary from fighting a divorce, terrorists became too old or too tired to fight, employers and strikers are exhausted after an industrial dispute.

People get fed-up with the negative energy. They are then more willing to sit down and find positive solutions.

Let’s assume that you believe it is likely that these conditions can be met. Or, at least, you can help to bring these about. If so, it can be useful to go through the following steps.

Clarifying The Third Side

Imagine that you have been asked to facilitate a discussion about enabling people to work together towards a common goal. The first step is to clarify the potential Third Side.

Let’s look at one example. Several years ago I was invited to work with two department heads in a company. The Chief Executive was losing patience with the two teams that were supposed to work together to achieve the company’s goals.

One problem was that each team focused only on their own targets. When asked about cross-functional work, they blamed each other for failures. This downward spiral affected the service given to customers and the whole company performance.

Bearing this in mind, I met the Chief Executive to clarify the real results to achieve. He was crystal clear on what he wanted each team to contribute towards achieving the company’s picture of success.

This called for the respective departments to implement certain strategies to work together, deliver high levels of customer satisfaction and, in the process, contribute to achieving the company’s goals.

The key would be to encourage the department heads to focus on these outcomes. They had forgotten to focus on the real ‘What’ – the things they must deliver to achieve the company’s picture of success. Instead they had fallen into arguments about the ‘How’.

“This sounds relatively straight-forward,” somebody may say. “But what happens when you don’t have an authority who can communicate the Third Side?”

Good facilitators then involve the key parties in clarifying the picture of success. Sometimes this calls for asking questions that uncover the real results to achieve.

How to make this happen? One approach is to invite people to look into the future. It is then to ask:

“What do you want people to be saying about how you behaved and what you did in this situation?

“What are the actual words you would like to hear each of the stakeholders – children, colleagues, customers, future generations, etc. – saying?”

This is an approach that can be used with couples, educators, leaders and people who care for future generations.

Building on the answers given, it is then possible to create an agreed picture of success. This becomes the Third Side.

If you wish, try tackling the exercise on this theme. Looking at your life and work, think of a situation where it might be useful to create a potential Third Side.

This could be in your professional life where you want to help people to work well together. Alternatively, it might be in your personal life. For example, where you want to take the heat out of the situation, sit alongside somebody and work to achieve an agreed goal.

Describe a personal or professional situation where you think it might be useful to clarify a potential Third Side.

Describe the specific things you can do to clarify such a Third Side.

Communicating And
Committing To The Third Side
 

Imagine that you are helping people to work towards a common goal. It is important to make sure everybody understands the Third Side. You can then check if people are committed to achieving this picture of success.

Looking at the example with the two departmental heads, the Chief Executive asked them to meet with me. He explained the purpose of the meeting was to focus on how to pool their talents to achieve the company’s goal. He asked for their complete backing in the session and afterwards.

Both leaders had worked with me before, so they knew the session would be positive. During the meeting it was important to go through the following stages.

To create an encouraging environment and explain it was recognised that they were working flat out.

To explain that, if they were open to it, we would explore how they could be supported to combine their talents to achieve the company’s goals.

To put these goals in front of us so that we were literally all on the same side and looking together at the company’s picture of success.

Going deeper, I explained we had been tasked with working together to find solutions. Were they willing to work towards satisfying the customers and achieving the company’s goals?

“Yes, of course we are willing,” was the joint reply, followed by a few caveats.

The key, however, was to focus on this Third Side. Were they willing to work together to achieve the goals? Later we could explore solutions regarding how to deliver this picture of success.

Good facilitators create an encouraging environment. When appropriate, however, they also outline the specific results that they and the parties are expected to deliver.

If you wish, try tackling the exercise on this theme. This invites you to do the following things.

Describe the personal or professional situation where you can do your best to communicate and ensure people are committed to achieving the Third Side.

Describe the specific things you can do to do your best to communicate and ensure people are committed to achieving the Third Side.

Taking Concrete Steps Towards
Achieving The Third Side

The next stage is to encourage people to take concrete steps towards achieving the Third Side. Success builds confidence. So it is vital to focus on specific things that people can do to deliver some early wins.

This is what happened with the two department heads in the company. They made specific action plans that involved them co-operating:

To deliver superb service to the customer.

To produce success stories that enhanced the reputation of the customer and company.  

To proactively keep the Chief Executive informed about their ongoing contribution towards achieving the company’s picture of success.

Imagine that you are facilitating a discussion around enabling people to work together towards a Third Side.

You may be working with a couple that wants to help their children, an organisation that wants to shape a better future, a team that wants to solve a conflict or some other group.

How can you encourage them to get some early successes? If you wish, try tackling the exercise on this theme. This invites you to do the following things

Describe the personal or professional situation where you can encourage people to take steps towards achieving the Third Side. 

Describe the specific things you can do to encourage people to take steps towards achieving the Third Side.

There are many ways to help people to find positive solutions. This article has explored three models. You will, of course, have your own approach to helping people deal with such challenges.

Let’s return to your own life and work. Looking ahead, can you think of a situation when you may want to find positive solutions? This could be in your personal or professional life.

You may want to take this route when shaping your career, taking care of your health or dealing with a setback. You may want to take it when making a tough decision, leading a team or tackling another challenge.

What can you do then to take responsibility? How can you clarify the results to achieve? How can you find and follow through on the positive solution?

If you wish, try tackling the exercise on this theme. This invites you to do the following things.

Describe a specific situation in the future when you may focus on finding positive solutions. 

Describe the specific things you can do then to focus on finding positive solutions.

Describe the specific things that may happen as a result of taking these steps.

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