Philanthropy & Funding

The Problem with Problem Statements

Forgoing the articulation of a problem statement and focusing on paradox leads to more effective communication with your organization’s supporters.

When crafting persuasive messages, we’re often instructed to clearly state the problem we are addressing. But there are problems with the communication of problem statements. Problems are often multi-layered, and what concerns your audience about the problem may lie outside of your message about the problem.

Also, exposing your listener to a problem—especially if that problem represents a new and strange idea—risks shutting down communication and igniting rejection. Emotions elicited by stating problems are jarringly different than emotions elicited by presenting solutions. You risk pushing your audience away, rather than pulling them toward meaningful engagement. "To the extent people can't solve a problem,” says environmentalist Tom Bowman, “they tend to ignore that problem."

And, most likely, your organization is not against something as much as it is for a solution. For example, many organizations exist to combat childhood poverty or air pollution. Your organization came into being because you offer a unique solution to a large problem. You want to be associated with that innovative solution. Your work is about more than simply reacting to a problem; you are actively shaping a response to it.

Your audience will never (and will never need to) comprehend the problem to the extent that you and your colleagues understand it. This is where passion trips up even the best communicator: Your audience doesn’t need to be as concerned with the problem as you are. Rather, their passion for enacting change must be piqued. Your audience does not need to own the problem to own a part of the solution.

My colleague Michael Margolis recently wrote a terrific blog post, on the difference between problem and paradox when marketing a business. It got me thinking about the benefits of paradox over problem as a persuasive communication tool.

Let’s define paradox as seemingly contradictory beliefs, assumptions, and situations. Wikipedia offers three rhetorical paradoxes: Oscar Wilde's "I can resist anything except temptation," G.K. Chesterton's "Spies do not look like spies,” and the character Polonius's observation in Shakespeare’s Hamlet that "though this be madness, yet there is method in't."

Problem statements have you defining the problem as you see it. Even if your listener is nodding in agreement with your definition of a problem, they may choose not to become involved in the implementation of the solution. I’m reminded of something I heard economist James Surewicki say: “Yes/no votes are not useful because they do not measure the intensity of emotion. My ‘Yes’ may be very different than your ‘Yes.’” The truth is, there are often many different ways to view a problem, and articulating a paradox gets us much closer to the objective truth (if there is one).

Terrence E. Deal and Kent D. Peterson, in Shaping School Culture: Pitfalls, Paradoxes, and Promises, rally against the “dualistic thinking” that sees solutions to problems as choices between extreme alternatives: “In much Western thought, puzzling situations are considered simplistic problems to be solved with predetermined answers rather than puzzling dilemma begging a balanced judgment.”

Paradox welcomes multiple points of view, pathways toward understanding, and complex arguments. Allowing for paradox respects your audiences’ existing knowledge and belief systems. Presenting paradox rather than problem is likely to be a much richer source of emotional and experiential resonance with your listener. Thinking about paradox helps you to meet your listener “where they are at.”

Allowing for a discussion of paradox moves the conversation away from you, and your definition of the problem, to the audience and how participating in your solution may best fit within the complicated context of their experiences and lives. People will take action for many different reasons. To effectively communicate, you can and must tap into the complexity of your audience’s belief system.

To start playing with paradox, simply change “buts” to “ands.” This acknowledges the seemingly contradictory beliefs and values many people simultaneously hold. It also gets you well on your way to more emphatic and resonant communication.

Here are some examples:

  • Autonomy and risk-taking are highly regarded in our organization, and we need more collaboration and caution among our employees.
  • The immigrants in my community are strengthening it, and immigrants are changing American society and way of life.
  • Women should not stay with their abusers, and divorce is not acceptable in our particular culture.

In The Story Handbook: Language and Storytelling for Land Conservationists, William Cronon explains:

It is important to emphasize that humans can hold multiple narratives, sometimes mutually exclusive. We mix and match. The conservative Roman Catholic narrative is incompatible with the narrative of liberal democracy, but that does not prevent most conservative Roman Catholics from being enthusiastic supporters of liberal democracies. The Christian narrative appears incompatible with capitalist virtues, but that does not prevent Christians from living the bourgeois life. The eco-romantic narrative appears incompatible with much of modern technology, but that does not prevent environmentalists from using the latest laptops or flying around the world to enjoy ecotourism.

Forgoing the articulation of a problem statement and instead focusing on paradox demonstrates openness. It helps check assumptions. Thinking about paradox encourages observation and curiosity. As author Maxine Hong Kingston noted, "I learned to make my mind large, as the universe is large, so that there is room for paradoxes."

There are problems with the communication of problem statements: The people with whom you are most likely speaking are not part of the problem. You are not part of the problem. Acknowledge paradox and invite your listeners to join you in your solution.

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  • Christina Jarron's avatar

    BY Christina Jarron

    ON September 10, 2012 10:19 PM

    Thank you for a very thought-provoking article Thaler. The approach to communication that you describe could be of great utility to not-for-profits looking to engage potential partners in less traditional project types (e.g. collective impact) and identify shared value. Could you (or other readers) offer an example of how an organisation has effectively presented paradox or made the transition from a problem-focused to a paradox-focused communication strategy?

  • BY Ron Donaldson

    ON September 13, 2012 03:24 AM

    Thanks Thaler, for an interesting and thought provoking piece.
    I added to my storytelling methods when I started teaching TRIZ (the Russian problem solving methodology) and our heuristic is that when you see a ‘but’ it highlights a ‘contradiction’, which is great because now it is just a problem to solve and TRIZ suggests many paths to solve each contradiction.
    I had not heard of the Cronon Story Handbook even though I worked in Conservation so thanks for that lead as well.

  • BY Daniel Bassill

    ON September 15, 2012 10:10 AM

    I’ve built a library of information related to poverty and the potential of volunteer-based youth serving organizations that has bee largely inspired by TRIZ over the past dozen years.  I try to draw attention to this library through blog articles, social media, many other daily interactions.

    I think the ideas Thaler shares are valuable because they illustrate how the constant focus on the problem causes many people to distance themselves from involvement while the real goal of the problem messaging is that it is intended draws people into on-going learning where they use the information collected (e.g. TRIZ) to support their own learning and growing ownership.

    I’m extremely guilty of this myself.

    People leading social change organizations can’t make change happen or sustain and grow efforts over multiple years without others sharing the ownership. Building this ownership is an on-going process that is enhanced by effective messaging and story-telling.

    Recruiting volunteers who can help tell these stories effectively and create an emotional connection of readers to the organization would be one strategy to overcome our own tendency/habit to constantly lead with the problem statement.

    Thanks for the ideas.

  • Sera Angelis's avatar

    BY Sera Angelis

    ON September 21, 2012 07:14 AM

    Seems like you are asking NGOs to make a significant change in proven messaging based on conjecture and theory. What tests have been conducted on messaging of this nature? Have there been A/B split tests pitting paradox against problem? What were the audiences?

    I think some are in love with the idea of being more positive and sophisticated because they themselves are bored with what has a proven track record of working. We are political scientists, not political delusionists. You posit an idea - have you experimented to prove your theory?

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