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<xTITLE>How to Navigate the “not my problem” Problem</xTITLE>

How to Navigate the “not my problem” Problem

by Tammy Lenski
August 2016

Conflict Zen Blog by Tammy Lenski

Tammy Lenski

“That’s not my problem” are four of the most frustrating words to hear when you’re trying to talk through a conflict. They’re dismissive and may leave you feeling powerless to resolve the problem. Here are three tried-and-true ways to get problem-solving moving forward again.

To deal with the “not my problem” problem, you must first stop doing what you’ve been doing and figure out what’s going on for them:

  1. Stop trying to persuade them that it’s a problem that should matter to them.
  2. Try to uncover why they don’t think it’s their problem.

When you do this, you’ll often learn that “It’s not my problem” is code for unstated thoughts like these:

  1. I’m not ready to acknowledge my contribution.
  2. I’m not willing to acknowledge my contribution because of something you’re saying or doing.
  3. I don’t like the way you’ve named the problem.
  4. I can’t fix the problem as you’ve defined it.
  5. I really do think it’s all your problem.

Option 1: Adjust your problem frame

Reasons 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5 above can be reactions to the way you’ve framed (or named) the problem. Try to find a way to name the problem that makes it a joint problem to be solved.

“How to get you to meet deadlines better” is likely to have less success than “How we can set and meet project deadlines.” Similarly, “You need to pitch in more at home” is likely to have less success than, “How we’ll share housekeeping.”

In each example, the first frame is one-sided — one person (not you) needs to fix something. Lop-sided problem frames tend to invite pushback.

The second frame in each example is a joint frame — it names a problem you can solve together. Joint problem frames take the problem out from between you and let you face it together, a joint effort against the problem. Joint problem frames signal that you’re as willing to roll up your sleeves as you expect them to be.

Make sure the way you’ve framed the problem doesn’t include your pet diagnoses, your desired solution, blame, and other muck that almost guarantees they’ll want nothing to do with solving it.

Option 2: Give them some space

Reasons 1 and 2 above can be caused by emotional hijacking, a bad day, and other “time and place” problems.

Try to give them some space to get their feet back under them so they can bring their better self to the conversation. Take the lead without pressure, signaling your interest in pursuing the problem without pushing them to talk about it right now.

It might sound something like this: “Let’s take a break from this for now. I want to think about it some more, maybe you do too. I’ll circle back to you tomorrow when we’ve had a breather.”

Option 3: Mi problema es su problema

This is my personal favorite for those problems where I’m troubled by someone’s behavior but they don’t view their behavior as problematic at all – Reason 5 at the start of this article. To their thinking, I really am the one with the problem — their behavior is fine, so I need to adjust my attitude.

But here’s the rub, for them: If something they’re doing is creating a true problem for me, it is unlikely I’ll just shrug it off. Instead, my irritation with their behavior will continue to grow, my reaction over time may deteriorate, and tension is likely increase.

The growing tension (bickering, complaining, repeated conversations about this, etc) — that is a problem they really do face. So the mi problema es su problema approach is about helping them discover this.

With this option, try figuring out what could become a problem for them if the behavior you don’t like continues. Will you have to keep bringing it up? Will others have to get involved? Will something not get done or done properly?

Be careful not to turn the conversation into a threat (“Well, if you insist on continuing to do it that way, I”m going to have to talk to the boss…”). Your goal is not to strong-arm them into problem-solving, it’s to help them think through whether or not they really do have a problem.

The mi problema es su problema approach might sound something like this: “Here’s my dilemma: I’m very bothered by this problem. Not talking about it will not make it go away for me. And that’s going to create more tension and a bigger problem to sort out. I’d rather sort it out while it’s still manageable. Would you be willing to discuss it, even if you don’t feel responsible for it?“


Dr. Tammy Lenski helps people resolve conflict in ongoing business and personal relationships and bring their "A" game to difficult conversations. Since founding her NH-based conflict resolution firm Myriaccord LLC in 1997, Tammy has worked with individuals and organizations worldwide as a master mediator, executive coach, speaker, and educator. Author of the award-winning book, Making Mediation Your Day Job, she recently received the Association for Conflict Resolution’s prestigious Mary Parker Follett award for innovative and pioneering work in her field. Her second book, The Conflict Pivot, was released in 2014.


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