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The greatest challenge to any thinker is stating the problem in a way that will allow a solution. – Bertrand Russell
Every imperfect soul is self-centered and thinketh only of his own good. But as his thoughts expand a little he will begin to think of the welfare and comfort of his family. If his ideas still more widen, his concern will be the felicity of his fellow citizens; and if still they widen, he will be thinking of the glory of his land and of his race. But when ideas and views reach the utmost degree of expansion and attain the stage of perfection, then will he be interested in the exaltation of humankind. He will then be the well-wisher of all men and the seeker of the weal and prosperity of all lands. This is indicative of perfection. – Abdu’l-Baha, Selections from the Writings of Abdu’l-Baha, pp. 68-69.
We all begin life with only our own comfort and interests in mind, much like a baby when it is born. As the child grows, she becomes aware of her family. When she goes to school, she becomes aware of her fellow students and community. As her awareness grows, she becomes aware of her nation. The final step in her maturation process–becoming aware of the state of humankind–will finally allow her to consider and work toward the peace and prosperity of all.
I teach and write about consultation skills. I try to bring people together and build unity among them. Because I’m a Baha’i, I believe that unity and consultation solve problems, rather than just being a nebulous goal at the end of a process. I believe, too, that helping others means assisting them to grow and mature.
When I face a difficult issue in my teaching, I know I’ll typically need a wider range of options to come up with the best solution.
So I generally recommend a “frame”–a more expansive statement than the problem itself. The first step in resolving any issue means framing it in a way that provides the opportunity for more creative and expansive solutions. Most situations start out framed with yes-or-no, zero-sum solutions: If you’re right, then I’m wrong. From a Baha’i perspective, the key to resolution involves expanding the understanding of the problem, which will allow for a wider range of choices. Here’s an example:
A group of twenty unhappy neighborhood homeowners asked me to help with a case regarding a barking dog, so I tried to frame a short list of questions to open up the possibilities for resolution.
First question: Where do you live, how long have you lived there, and what are your hopes and dreams for the community?
Each person in my group of homeowners went up to a map, showed where they lived and how long they had been there, and what spoke about their hopes and dreams were for the community. One person got up and said he and his spouse had lived there for five years and were looking forward to raising a family there. Another couple said that they had only lived there a few months and were just renting until they could afford a place. The next person said they had just sold their house and were leaving in a few months.
Thus, we began with questions that allowed people to connect with one another.
Second question: “What would you like to share about your dog?”
Everyone in the neighborhood had a dog, and they all wanted to share what was important to them about the about the dog they owned.
Third question: “What is normal for a dog in your neighborhood?”
Someone said, “While it’s okay if they come on my lawn, I don’t want them on my front porch.” Someone else said, “Well, I guess they could come in my backyard occasionally.” Another said dogs should always be on a leash and that they should be quiet after 10:00 PM.
One more question framed the situation and resolved the issue. What was the question?
In this case I decided to frame the issue in terms of the neighborhood instead of a single individual. I also tried to focus on the dog’s perspective.
Fourth and final question: “How can we help a dog that can’t live according to the norms of this neighborhood?”
The neighbors worked together, and came up with a very creative list of about twenty different things they could do to help a dog that couldn’t live according to the community norms. We took that list and put it in order by cost, starting with the least expensive, which included things like install a doggie door (so the dog could go inside at will), put a radio outside the house for the dog, have the dog socialize with other dogs and people. The more expensive choices included doggie day care, doggie psychiatrists and doggie Valium. We did not end up with an agreement–we ended up with a prioritized list. We agreed that the dog owner would start with the least expensive idea, and just keep working down the list until he found the things that worked.
Want to know the interesting thing about this case? I never found out who owned the misbehaving dog. Nobody ever pointed a finger; nobody ever said “You did something wrong, dog owner.” Instead, we worked together to solve the problem, sitting in a circle of equals around the list of issues and the proposed solutions–which, in the spirit of Baha’i consultation, belong to everyone equally.
When you take the global perspective, and frame the question in pursuit of unity, no one has to defend or be accused of wrongdoing, and everyone can work together to create a better outcome.