Slow Down and Be the Bedouin

It feels productive to toss out ideas for a solution and demonstrate how much we want to help. But it’s usually unproductive if we haven’t done something essential first: Make sure we understand the problem from their frame of reference.

A man walking in the desert approached a Bedouin. “How far to the nearest oasis?” he inquired.

The Bedouin did not respond. “I said, how far is it to the nearest oasis?” the man asked, a bit more loudly this time and enunciating his words very carefully.

The Bedouin still did not respond. The man shook his head in frustration, turned, and began to walk away.

The Bedouin called out, “It will take you three hours!”

The man spun around to face the Bedouin. “Couldn’t you have told me that when I first asked?”

“No,” replied the Bedouin. “I couldn’t answer until I knew how fast you walk.”

Be the Bedouin

When we hurry to solution, the only frame of reference from which we can solve the problem is our own. And when each person is trying to solve a problem primarily from their own frame of reference, there’s likely to be a solution gap.

A solution gap occurs when we fall in love with our own solution without vetting its merits from their perspective.

The relentless push to solve before understanding comes from pressure both inside and out.

Inside, generating ideas for solution makes us feel helpful. It makes us feel smart. It shows we’re trying hard. It shows that we’re worthy.

Outside, the push to resolve comes from limited time to negotiate in a busy day. From overfull plates. From the tendency to value “Eureka!” more than, “That’s interesting…”

But when we solve with only partial data, we may inadvertently trade good and lasting solution for fast solution. Good and lasting solutions need data from multiple frames of reference.

So: Let’s be the Bedouin. Let’s take the time to understand from outside our own frame of reference and discover answers and solutions that were invisible to us before.


Tammy Lenski

Dr. Tammy Lenski helps individuals, pairs, teams, and audiences navigate disagreement better, address friction, and build alignment. Her current work centers on creating the conditions for robust collaboration and sound decisions while fostering resilient personal and professional relationships. Her conflict resolution podcast and blog, Disagree Better, are available at… MORE >

Featured Mediators

View all

Read these next


Minimizing the Litigation Risk in Mediation

Litigation is defined in numerous dictionaries in various ways.  One definition is “The legal process of spending a lot of time, effort and money in court proceedings which may or...

By Benjamin Seigel

The Interactive ADA Accommodation Process

This article was first published in "Employment Update", a newsletter of Bullivant|Houser|Baily. Winter 2001, Volume 6, Number 1.The Americans With Disabilities Act (“ADA”) requires employers to reasonably accommodate the disabilities...

By Clay D. Creps, Douglas R. Andres

Mediation and National Security Personnel System (NSPS) Pay for Performance: Can The Pitfalls Be Avoided?

The implementation of Paybanding – “Pay for Performance” is happening now. Congress has enacted the National Security Personnel System (NSPS) into law with total implementation by all government agencies and...

By Carol Rice, Rick Voyles

Find a Mediator