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Senior Correspondent

The worst fight is the one that’s unnecessary. People collide over small issues and completely miss the big stuff. Every problem you repeatedly face has a deeper meaning that sits below the surface. You should agree on a deeper purpose before solving surface problems.

I did training for a group of dedicated educators who, like everyone else, grapple with recurring frustrations. Parents don’t bring their young children to class on time, for example.

Going deep: Surface conflict obscures deeper concerns. I led the group through a short question-and-answer exercise designed to align deeper issues with surface concerns.

Question: What frustrates you about Billy being late to class?

Response: He misses out on the beginning of the day. It’s a disruption.

Question: How could Billy and his parents arrive on time?

Response: They could lay out Billy’s clothes the night before.

Question: How will laying out clothes the night before be helpful?

Response: It will help Billy’s family get into a ritual.

Question: What’s important about rituals for Billy?

Response: (The room lit up.) Billy’s life is unstable. It’s likely he’ll grow up insecure. One way to build confidence into Billy’s life is through rituals.

A second look: The first answer is the least important.

At first, being late looks like the problem. After some thought, it’s really about developing Billy into a confident young man. Being late is a problem, but building confidence into Billy’s life is transformational.

Successful problem solvers explore deeper purpose before solving surface problems.

Collisions over being late for class are filled with blaming, guilt and excuses. Teachers and parents agree, however, on the deeper purpose – Billy becoming a confident young man.

Will rituals help Billy feel secure? Yes. Could we start with the ritual of laying out Billy's clothes? Yes.

Prevent collisions over surface issues by agreeing on a deeper purpose.

How can leaders go below the surface to address deeper issues before solving surface problems?

What deeper issues connect to the problems you’re facing?

Note: The work for these teachers isn’t done. They face the rigorous path of connecting surface problems with deeper issues, but motivation is easier when deeper purposes are involved. Is this a perfect answer for Billy? Of course not. There are no perfect answers. Is it a step in the right direction? Yes.

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