Psychological techniques can be an effective way of solving real-world problems as well as helping you achieve personal growth and confidence, says Rob Yeung
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This article was first published in the April 2019 international edition of Accounting and Business magazine.
What is currently the biggest obstacle or problem that you’re facing – either at work or in life more generally? Perhaps you feel frustrated that you are not being offered promotion. Maybe you run a business and need to find new clients or customers. Or perhaps a person or circumstance is causing you anguish.
In situations such as these, psychological techniques may be of some use – they may alleviate stress or other psychological symptoms, for example. However, the better solution is to tackle the source of the problem. In my book The Confidence Project: Your plan for personal growth, happiness and success, I describe a process for tackling real-world problems. Here are four key insights:
Write down your thoughts
Can you multiply 97 by 63 in your head? If you try to work out the answer mentally, you will find that it is not only time consuming but you’re also likely to make mistakes. But if you use pen and paper, you could no doubt do the calculation more quickly and accurately.
Everybody accepts that working out mathematical problems is much easier with pen and paper or keyboard and screen – yet some people persist in trying to work out their real-world problems in their heads. Simply put, writing allows people to structure their thinking more effectively and arrive at better solutions.
There may be other benefits, too. In a now classic study, Carnegie Mellon University researcher Stephen Lepore instructed students to write down their deepest thoughts and feelings about an upcoming exam. Without even trying to turn their thoughts into a plan, this simple act enabled the students to feel significantly less stressed.
Focus on someone like you
Most people are better at advising friends and colleagues than sorting out their own problems. However, studies have found that it’s possible to put this fact to good use.
Behavioural scientists Ethan Kross and Igor Grossmann of the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor found that simply asking people to imagine they were advising someone else led to better, wiser decisions. So rather than trying to solve your own problem, imagine that you are counselling someone else who happens to share your name. By distancing yourself from the situation facing this other person, you may find a better solution.
Many organisations encourage teams to use brainstorming techniques to generate ideas for how to deal with problems. However, a considerable body of evidence shows that group brainstorming is actually a sub-optimal method. For example, Peter Heslin at the Cox School of Business in Texas found that individuals working alone generated both more and better ideas than when talking and working together.
By all means ask others for input. However, a good strategy is to spend time reflecting alone and identifying at least some options before seeking others’ advice. That way, you have a starting point – an anchor – against which you can compare options.
Focus on ‘how’ not ‘why’
When faced with a complicated situation that may be causing significant distress, some people wonder why it may have arisen. They may ask themselves questions such as ‘Why am I not getting promoted?’ and ‘Why do they not respect me?’
However, asking such questions may actually be counterproductive. Researchers Ed Watkins and Simona Baracaia from what was the Institute of Psychiatry in London found that people who ask ‘why’ questions tend to be measurably worse at problem solving than people who ask ‘how’ questions.Rather than asking ‘Why am I not getting job offers?’, change the focus by asking: ‘How can I get job offers?’ Reframe ‘Why am I not more confident?’ as ‘How can I be more confident?’
This can seem like a trivial difference. However, the reasons a complicated situation has come about may not always be apparent. The science shows that focusing on practical actions may ultimately lead to better results.
Dr Rob Yeung is an organisational psychologist at leadership consulting firm Talentspace: talentspace.co.uk.
CPD technical article
"Rather than trying to solve your own problem, imagine that you are counselling someone else who happens to share your name"