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Problem Solved

"PROBLEM" "SOLVED", NLP World 4, No 3, pp 73 - 75 (1997)

by Mark McKergow

Solution States, Sid Jacobsen, Anglo-American Books, 1996 £12.99

Anatomy of Errors, Alex Howard, Gateway Books, 1989 £5.95

Problems - where would we be without them? We probably wouldn't have these two books - which are both aimed at people with "problems" who would (presumably) rather be without them.

So - what IS a problem? Neither book really goes into this, which is a pity. Wittgenstein expressed the view that a "problem" is, by definition, something with a solution. Anything to which there is no solution is not entitled to be called a problem - it's the way things are. For example - using current best cosmological estimates and theories, the Earth takes about 365.25 days to go around the Sun. Now, suppose our "problem" is that the year isn't long enough - indeed I'd like an extra 10%, 400 days, to help get everything done. So, my problem is to get the Earth into an orbit taking 400 days. Is this really a "problem", or is it just some sloppy definition? Wittgenstein would say (and I would agree) that the 365-day year is just one of those things. So, my "problem" is not well defined.

NLPers have some ideas about how to tackle this, of course - we try chunking up, to find out what I'm seeking to get by having a longer year, and finding other ways to get it. But if I persist in thinking that the ONLY way to solve my "problem" is to extend the year to 400 days, I'll die either an unhappy man or a Nobel Prize winner, depending on how I get on.

Another take on "problems" was set down by John Weakland. He postulated that we all come across "difficulties" - that is minor annoyances, things not quite as we'd want them - very frequently in life. Most of these are dealt with instantly, and without much thought. Can't persuade the cat to go out? OK, leave it for a while, then it'll want to go out anyhow, no problem, Quite literally, no problem. Weakland said that a "problem" only occured when one of these difficulties was mishandled, probably persistantly. The mishandling AND the difficulty together led to the appearance of a "problem". Hence, keeping trying to handle the problem the same way was bound to be ineffective - a different solution had to be tried. This has been translated into the well-known NLP motto of "if it doesn't work, do something different". Note that the problem does not appear until after failure to deal with it initially - we can't call the cat's failure to go out a problem until we've tried to put it out.

So for a "solution" we need two things - a "problem" defined in a solvable way, and some kind of solution to have been attempted already. How do these books help the problem-solver?

Sid Jacobsen's work is subtitled "A course in solving problems in business with the power of NLP". The "business" angle is not entirely clear to me - most of the book is pretty classical NLP, with the odd reference to TQM (total quality management), for instance, thrown in. Maybe Sid has worked out that being a "business consultant" often allows an extra zero on the end of the consulting fee. The book is clearly aimed, at least partly, at a non-NLP audience - Jacobsen goes out of his way to describe what NLP is, gives introductory book recommendations and so on. The book itself is in two parts - defining your problem SPACE (Self, Purpose, Audience, Code, Experience). The second part relates to using states in various ways to help in solving problems, building a compelling future, and other processes - submodalities to the fore.

The book is packed with good NLP stuff relating to taking a personal role in solving problems. I'm not sure, however, how many NLP novices will be able to use it to good effect to help themselves. This isn't helped by the slightly eccentric typesetting and layout - I found myself having to hold the book at arms length to take in the large type on small pages. AA Books are a small company who deserve lots of credit for bringing books like this to their audiences, and I hope that they will learn and go on from strength to strength.

Alex Howard's "Anatomy of Errors" is subtitled "A self help course in problem solving". For once, I have to disagree. Howard has assembled sixty nine ways in which people give themselves problems about problems - for example "doing too many things at once", or "not sufficiently assertive". He suggests that the reader goes through the list at the beginning, ticks the issues which apply most, and then reads the relevant sections.

I've hidden this book, in case a certain friend of mine gets hold of it. He loves to hate himself, as has a rather debilitating habit of finding the worst in everything, usually his own behaviour, and getting very depressed about things which most people would shrug off as a bit of bad luck. I'm very worried that if he looks at this book, he'll find so many reasons why things could go wrong that we'll never find anything going right ever again. Now, if Alex Howard writes a follow-up about "Anatomy of Successes", then we might have a different result.

So Jacobsen takes the honours, with a book that addresses the framing of problems well, and builds a lot of good NLP wisdom along the way. And if you're still trying to put that cat out, do make sure you've opened the door before changing your state, blaming your self-esteem, engaging a consultant or ringing your analyst.

Watzlawick P, Weakland J and Fisch R, Change, Norton (1974)