From Problems to Possibilities: 7 Tips for Focusing on Opportunities

Whether you think you can or think you can't – you're right.

This quote, attributed to Henry Ford, illustrates perfectly why framing is an essential leadership skill: it enables you to help people experience the world and view their situations in a different way. Framing means putting something in perspective so you and others can understand it quickly and accurately.

Whether your task is to win community support, justify new resources, gain stakeholder support for new initiatives, resolve conflicts, create a shared vision, improve employee morale, increase workforce diversity or change your organization's culture, the way you define and discuss it determines the probability of your success.

Helping employees focus on possibilities rather than problems is a matter of teaching them about choices and language.

Although there are many aspects of our lives we have little or no control over, the fact is that we always get to choose how we experience any situation. This truth comes as a surprise to many people. The good news is that framing skills are effective in all aspects of life, they may be learned by anyone and applying them costs nothing.

Here are seven tips for teaching your employees to focus on opportunities rather than challenges by using a variety of framing skills.

Tip #1: Focus on What You Can Control vs. What You Cannot

Next time you see crew members sitting around the kitchen table complaining, redirect their attention to something more productive.

Draw a rectangle on a sheet of paper. Inside the box, have them write the things they have a great deal of control over; outside the box, list the things they can't control. Encourage them to focus their energy on addressing only the items inside the box.

This simple visual is a quick and easy way to help them choose the most likely avenues to success.

Tip #2: Ask Purposeful Questions

The questions you ask determine where people look for answers. Consider the differences between these sets of questions:

  • "Can we reopen an engine company?" vs. "How can we reopen an engine company?"
  • "What challenges do you face next year?" vs. "What opportunities do you see?"
  • "How much should we cut the public-safety budget?" vs. "What level of public safety should we provide for the community?"

By changing the question, you dramatically expand the range of possible answers.

Tip #3: Develop a Clear Picture of the Desired Outcome

The goal of most fire and rescue agencies is a safe, healthy, economically viable community. With your employees, describe in detail what this outcome looks like for them. When you treat the resulting picture as your collective touchstone, referring to it when making decisions and taking actions, employees will search for opportunities to make it a reality instead of seeing obstacles to its achievement.

Tip #4: Ask Employees to Describe What They Want

When people complain, they usually talk about what they don't want or like. This approach is unproductive because it fails to identify the desired outcome.

If there's a loss of trust between labor and management, for example, ask employees to describe—in specific, behavioral terms—what they must hear officers say or see them do for them to believe management is trustworthy.

Though people find it difficult to articulate objective behaviors that indicate abstract concepts, this process requires them to focus on the possibilities of trust (in this case) rather than on the problems caused by distrust.

Tip #5: Jettison the Baggage

Because people see the world through filters colored by their life experiences, negative emotions cloud their view, with dysfunctional results. To jettison that unwanted baggage, hold a pity party. Identify one negative emotion (such as anger, pity or resentment), set a timer for 10 minutes and tell employees to feel just as sorry for themselves or angry or resentful as they possibly can during that time; don't hold back.

When the timer goes off, the party's over and they must move forward. Repeat as necessary.

This technique works because it both acknowledges and honors the negative feelings and it allows employees to release them and move forward. Unimpeded by anger, resentment or other negative emotions, they can look beyond challenges and see possibilities.

Tip #6: Choose: Victimhood or Healthy Options

People have choices about how to experience any situation: as a victim or in a healthy way. Those who choose victimhood look for obstacles, whereas those who choose healthy options (such as to influence the situation, accept it or remove themselves from it) seek opportunities.

By letting your employees know that victimhood is a conscious choice for which there are healthy alternatives, you'll free them to search for possibilities instead of seeing life as a series of problems to be overcome.

Tip #7: Deconstruct Success Stories to Learn How to Replicate Them

Storytelling is a powerful communication tool, yet its ability to influence perceptions and behaviors isn't often fully utilized. Ask employees to share their stories of success, including details about what made it possible.

Then engage them in post-success reviews. As a group, identify the people and factors that enabled those achievements and discuss how to replicate those conditions in other situations so they become adept at seeing opportunities to succeed.

Problem solving is a dominant framework to view the world from, so invest the time, effort and persistence to help your employees shift to a possibilities-centered frame that lets them focus on opportunities rather than on challenges. Though integrating framing skills into your consciousness will require patience and lots of practice on your part, the results can be game-changing for you, your employees and the communities you serve.

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