The problem trap

Alban Institute warns about getting caught in the “problem trap”:

To effect deep change, leaders must be able to stand outside the dominant story of whatever it is we are trying to change—rather than being so immersed in it that we cannot truly observe how to lead a particular group in a particular situation. Ron Heifetz, author of Leadership Without Easy Answers, often talks about this as being able to take a balcony perspective. I have found the tools and perspectives of narrative therapy especially useful in helping clergy begin to get up on the balcony and become different observers of their situations, allowing for different actions and different results to become possible.

Recognizing the Problem-Saturated Story

One of the primary kinds of stories that takes hold in congregations and makes change difficult is what is known in narrative therapy as the “problem-saturated story,” or one in which the focus is on who or what is or has been wrong.

You can recognize the problem-saturated story when you’re in a group where someone offers an example of how difficult or awful something is in the congregation and before you know it the rest of us can’t help but chime in with more evidence for how truly bad and impossible the situation is. We can almost hear ourselves saying, even if the words aren’t verbalized, “You think that’s bad, let me tell you how it is even worse than that!”

Problem-saturated stories have the impact of being taken as fact rather than as a narrative created by a particular sifting of facts.

Ways to start getting out of the trap:

“What would someone else in the congregation say?

What would the newest or longest member of the congregation say about this situation?”

“What would a child say?” or, better yet,

“What would someone who disagrees with your version of events say about this situation?”

Sometimes just recognizing the dynamic of the problem-saturated story can release people from its mesmerizing effect and allow them to stand outside of it. Other times, taking on a different perspective allows the leader to recognize that the observer they have been offers only one of many perspectives. Shifting the observer can often reveal different actions that are available and different results that are possible.

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