Monthly Archives: September 2015

Language and the “Levels” Problem


September 7, 2015

Problems are not “out there” in the world waiting for us to find them.  They are not like apples hanging from branches waiting to be picked. They have to be created. What exists “out there” are issues, situations and events that, once noticed and examined, are experienced as worrisome, problematic, and even at times, challenging and exciting.   As we learn more about them, we begin to see discrepancies, deficiencies, perturbations, anomalies, contradictions, gaps. Something is not quite right, we think, and so something needs to be done.  Yet even as we become engaged with issues or situations that trouble us, we do not yet have problems.  Something more is needed.

What is needed is conversation.

The primary vehicle for working our way into and out of troublesome situations and issues is talking about them.  Conversation is required.   As we talk about personal concerns, and if we do it skillfully, we turn them into problems.  We create them.

What do we talk about?   We talk about what is happening, what it means, why it is important and what we should do about it.  Sometimes we talk to ourselves, sometimes to another person, sometimes to eight to ten members of a team seated around a conference table, and sometimes to hundreds or thousands of members of an organization.  National leaders talk to millions.    But talking is what we must do.

We begin with feelings, but feelings about an issue or situation, no matter how intense, are never enough.   In fact, when trying to understand what is going on, not moving beyond our feelings is counterproductive  and often makes things worse.   In order to get to an actionable problem – one about which something can be done – we must convert our emotions into specific concerns, concrete descriptions and personal preferences.   Describing how we feel is where be begin, but then our challenge is to go beyond feelings and identify what it is in the situation that is the source of our feelings.

Without appropriate and skillful language organized into constructive conversation, there can be no progress toward understanding what is happening and why, and what should be done in order for things to improve. Without constructive conversation, no goals or objectives can be set; no obstacles or barriers that stand in our way can be identified;  and no action steps can be planned and implemented in order to attack these obstacles and narrow the gaps between where we are and where we want to be.

What is Appropriate Language?

While successful work on problems requires us to talk about what we want to do and why, not all language is appropriate or helpful for all problems.   Often, what we say and how we say it only make things worse. Appropriate language for working on problems depends upon the level of the problem being addressed.  The words spoken to  a rebellious child will be very different from those spoken by a CEO as she speaks about serious organizational problem to 10,000 employees via a video conferencing connection.

For example, consider this line of poetry from the 13th Century Persian poet Rumi:

Out beyond the ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing there is a field.  I’ll meet you there. 

Now compare Rumi’s declaration of unconditional acceptance and love for another person to the language used by an expert in national security as he talks about the deaths of millions in a nuclear war:

A man is speaking on television, writes Lewis Thomas in Late Night Thoughts on Listening to Mahler’s Ninth Symphony.  He is a “middle-aged and solid, nice looking chap.” He is being interviewed about his governmental responsibility for the civil defense of the United States in the event of an outbreak of war with Russia. ”It can make an enormous difference,”  he says, referring to his efforts to install bomb shelters in every American city. “Instead of the outright death of eighty million Americans in twenty minutes…we can, by careful planning and practice, get that number down to only forty million, maybe even twenty.” And those who survive, he says, could be moved from the bombed-out cities into the country. “That way we can recover, and meanwhile we will have retaliated, incinerating all of  Soviet Society. We will have twenty or forty million left, but the Russians will be completely destroyed.”

Different Language for Different Levels

Here are some examples of language people have used to talk about problems at different levels:


In Turning Toward the World,  writer and poet Thomas Merton, after becoming a Trappist monk, writes about his inner struggles:

I struggle in my heart all week.  My own moral conflict never ceases.  Knowing that I cannot and must not simply submit to the standards imposed upon me, and merely conform as ‘they’ would like.  This I am convinced is wrong – but the pressure never ceases.


It is 1977.  You and your “significant other” are in a darkened movie theatre watching the new Woody Allen movie Annie Hall.  As you watch, the screen dissolves into two parts.  On one side of the screen, Alvey Singer, played by Woody Allen is in a session with his therapist.  On the other side, Annie Hall, his girlfriend played by Diane Keaton, is also in conversation with her therapist.

Therapist #1: (To Alvey Singer)  ”How often to you have sex?”

Singer: (Lamenting) “Hardly ever, maybe two or three times a week.”

Therapist #2:  (To Annie Hall):  ”Do you have sex often?”

Annie Hall: (Annoyed) “Constantly.  I’d say three times a week.”

Team Level:

Team leader in an interview with a consultant:  This team is the most effective, most productive, and most satisfying one I have had the privilege to lead.  Oh, sure, we have problems, but we are able solve them before they cause any trouble.

Interview with a team member:  ”This is the most f***ed up team ever!  And the biggest problem of all is the team leader.  100%.  And his biggest problem is that he thinks he is God.  He thinks he knows everything, so he spends no time at all listening to the rest of us who really know what is going on.  But he doesn’t have a clue, especially about how the team is doing!   Everybody agrees with me, but you won’t hear this from any of them.  They’re afraid to tell it like it really is. There’s no trust here at all!  And the team meetings are a joke.  Most of the time, it’s “suck-up” time to the boss, telling him only what he wants to hear: “Things are going great, blah, blah, blah… He buys it all and never really checks up to see what is really happening.  If there was any safety in speaking out, I would do it.  But then the last person who tried this isn’t with us any more.  You copy?”


Daniel Joseph, HR specialist for a Fortune 500 Company, when asked about working with people:

  The way I look at people, they are a resource to be managed the way you would manage your money.  If you think about succession planning, it’s all about building supply, and you would never build supply ahead of demand.  ( Wall Street Journal, September 13, 2013)



Results of a Gallup Survey of Most Important Problems in the United States,  March, 2015:

Headline:  ”Americans Name Government as No. 1 U. S. Problem”

             - Government listed as top U. S. problem for four months straight;
              – Economy still among top problems;
              –  Satisfaction with direction of U. S. at 31%.

First five (of twelve) of most important problems in U.S. in March, 2015:

                           1.  Dissatisfaction with government;
                            2.  Economy in general;
                            3.  Unemployment/Jobs
                            4.  Immigration/Illegal Aliens
                            5.  Healthcare


A quote by Joseph Stalin:  One death is a tragedy; a million dead is a statistic.

2013 Newspaper Headline:  884 million people worldwide lack access to clean, drinkable water, and 2.6 billion people in developing countries lack adequate water. 

The World Economic Forum, founded in 1971, is an independent, international organization committed to improving economic conditions throughout the world.  In 2014, as it does every year, the Forum named the ten most serious global problems that urgently needed attention:

- Fiscal crises in key economies;
- Structurally high unemployment;
- Water crises;
- Severe income disparity;
- Failure of climate change mitigation and adaptation;
- Greater incidence of extreme weather events;
- Global governance failure;
-Food crises;
- Failure to establish a global financial institution;
- Profound political and social instability.

Matching Language with Problem Level

The loving and accepting language of the poet Rumi toward his beloved, when contrasted with the abstract description of people as resources and assets by the HR specialist, and with the cold-blooded estimate of the deaths of “only forty million, maybe even twenty million” people in a nuclear exchange with Russia, make clear the importance of matching the language with the problem.  For a manager or supervisor to say to an employee who has ignored company policies, that “there is a field beyond right and wrong, I’ll meet you there” is not only inappropriate but also could be seen as illegal!  For a policy planner at the Federal level to see  10 million unemployed as persons who are struggling and suffering rather than as members of a  statistical category is counterproductive.   There is no way for anyone to see 10 million persons as anything but members of a category.    ”Unemployment is at 6 percent” is how the economists say it, and then they go home to dinner.

 The existence and importance of the levels at which problem exist are often ignored or misunderstood.  Many people act as if  all problems are alike:  A problem is, after all, just a problem they believe.  Often they rely upon a favorite solution to solve them all.  Here are some examples:

“Just cut taxes!”
“Shrink Government!”
 ”Put up a plaque of the Ten Commandments on the wall of every school room!”  
“Try harder!”
“Turn it over to God!”
“Learn patience!”
“Change your attitude!”
“Improve communication!” 

“Oh”, they say, “Here’s a problem?  And I have the solution!” And then they take their favorite solution off the shelf, place it on top of the newly discovered problem, and wait for the problem to be solved.

Do I  exaggerate?  Perhaps, but not by much.  A number of years ago, two presidential candidates were campaigning together in Detroit and were asked by a young woman what they would do to solve the high rate of teen pregnancies in the community.  One candidate actually said that he would make sure that the Ten Commandments were posted in every schoolroom.  The other’s “solution” was that he would offer his 40 year marriage with the same woman as an example to the young people as to what they should do.

There are voices which insist that there is one solution that will work on all problems.   Whenever this claim is made, what is being proposed is a mismatch between the nature and level of the problem and the appropriateness  of  the “solution.”   The results are predictable:  disagreement, misunderstanding, and conflict,  usually leading nowhere.

What is required is quite different:  First, one needs to determine at what level the problem should be addressed;  then he or she develops an action plan that is appropriate for that specific problem at that level.

Mary Baird’s Predicament

Mary Baird is unhappy at work.  She is being subjected to a persistent and unwelcome pattern of sexual harassment by a member of her work team.  His unending stream of crude jokes, sexual comments, explicit suggestions and subtle  innuendos are offensive to her.  When she mentioned her concerns to a colleague, she is told, “Oh, that’s just Pete being Pete.  Don’t pay any attention.”

Since Mary is uncomfortable “letting Pete be Pete” and feels that she should not have to put up with Pete’s unwelcome behavior, she decides to turn the messy situation into a problem:  Pete’s behavior is not acceptable to her and changes need to be made.   Before she can move forward with dealing with this problem however, she is faced with a new problem:  Where should it be located?

If she decides that the problem is her problem – an Intrapersonal one – then her efforts at dealing with it will be necessarily directed inwardly.  Among her choices are:  Manage and control her feelings (“I won’t let him bother me”);  Reframe Pete’s behavior (“Pete doesn’t mean anything.  He’s just immature”); Try to avoid being around Pete (When Pete comes in, I’ll leave);  Use humor and ridicule (“Oh look, blabbermouth is at it again!”);  Push back (Hey Pete, that’s enough of that!”) Change the setting (Quit her job, request a transfer).  If Mary defines her problem as an  Intrapersonal one,  then all the work of making changes falls upon her.  Her task is to change herself.  Pete is not involved.

If, however, Mary decides that the problem is Interpersonal – that is, it belongs to both Mary (she is upset) and Pete (his behavior is offensive to her) – then in order for anything positive to occur,  Pete must be involved in the conversation.  Mary’s best choice is to discuss the issue with Pete directly.  If Mary is skillful in talking about her feelings, about Pete’s behavior, and what she wants from Pete, and if Pete is willing to listen and take Mary’s feelings into account, they may be able to find a new way of working together.

If, however, Pete “blows her off” by telling her that he is “only kidding,” or “you’re too sensitive,”  or says,  ”Hey, lighten up sweetheart,” then her choice may be to move the problem up to the Organizational Level.

Moving the problem to the Organizational Level can take two forms.  First, she can have an informal conversation with her boss (and Pete’s) and tell him that she will not tolerate Pete’s offensive behavior and that he needs to intervene.  Now, Mary’s boss has a problem.  If he refuses to acknowledge that Pete’s behavior is a problem,  and tells Mary that “no one else is complaining,” or “it’s not my problem, you fix it,”  then Mary’s choice may be to make the problem institutional:  Lodge a formal complaint of sexual harassment  with the Human Resource Department.

Once an interpersonal problem becomes a formal complaint for the organization, then both the Organizational and the Societal/National levels are involved.  Almost all organizations have formal processes of handling complaints which include policies and procedures that are defined and constrained by local and national laws.   Formal complaints of sexual harassment in organizations or institutions bring in the lawyers and perhaps judges and juries.   Once the dispute enters the Judicial System –  laws, lawyers, judges, courts – it moves beyond being only an organizational level  problem and becomes a Societal/National one as well.   Conversations about problems at this level will necessarily take a very different direction.  Rather than open and authentic sharing of feelings and preferences, all exchanges in a legal dispute are calculated, contrived, and directed, not toward understanding, but winning.  Most legal conversations are variations on the game of “Gotcha.”

An important guideline for addressing wicked  problems is one should begin at the lowest level possible.  For example, Mary would be wise to examine carefully whether she can live with Pete’s boorishness.  By employing one approach or another – Using Straight Talk, reframing the  situation, avoiding Pete whenever she can, using humor – she may be able to get past being upset by Pete.  If, however, she finds that Pete’s constant crudeness interferes with her abilities to do her work in a satisfying manner, then it’s time to raise the problem to the next level.

Problem Levels Make Things Complicated

If only things were simple and straightforward, life would be much more manageable.   Unfortunately, when it comes to problems, especially the wicked problems that we all face day-in and day-out, simplicity is not something that we can count on.  Complexity is what we get.  First of all, situations, issues, and events are not problems until we turn them into problems by talking about them.  Moving forward to try and “solve” a problem before having a constructive conversation about it is a serious mistake and will almost always create new problems.

Second, part of the conversation of creating a problem to work on must include a clear exploration of the level at which a problem is to be found.   Once a problem finds its appropriate level, then productive work can begin.  Author E. B. White captures the complexity that is involved:

 If the world were merely seductive, that would be easy.  If it were merely challenging that would be no problem.  But I arise in the morning determined both to change the world and have one hell of a good time.  Sometimes this makes planning the day a little difficult.

Most of us arise each morning with the same kind of ambivalence.  We want to have “one hell of a good time,” spending our efforts on our own personal issues and concerns.   At the same time we want to move beyond our narrow interests and do what we can to “change the world.” The issues and situations we want to work on will occur at all levels.  In order to be successful, we have to be clear that not all problems are alike, and that we cannot treat them as if they were.  The wicked problems in our own lives, in our families, in our relationships, and at work, are calling out to us, and most of us feel strong desires to respond.  Being clear about where problems are located and then responding with appropriate language and helpful actions for that specific problem at that specific level are ways to help things move not only in satisfying directions, but also in productive ones as well.