Solving Problems- the Social Autopsy

We’ve run into a few problems recently.  A friend of mine once said “There really aren’t any problems, just unresolved opportunities.”  Most of the time, I try to buy that line, and look at the inevitable bumps in the road as life giving me a lesson to learn.  It doesn’t always work, however.

One current issue involves a problem between my kid and a teacher.  There was clearly a lot of miscommunication going on on both sides, and I’ve been forced to step in.  Performing what my friend Rick Lavoie would call a “social autopsy,” it became clear almost immediately where things started to go off the tracks.  While we’re making strides towards resolving the issue, I can’t say that this kerfuffle has left me feeling any better about the education system, and it certainly has not made me nostalgic for high school.

Effective Response?

The natural and instinctual reaction to any drama or problem is to take sides and assign blame.  This is the gut, emotional response we can all have, and it takes a while to calm this down.  The next step is to move on to the more useful phase, solving the problem and coming to some understanding about the root cause, so no one has to go through the same pain again.

The worst part of issues that arise between two people is when the problem becomes intractable and requires third party intervention.  This is true no matter what we’re talking about- two employees fighting, kids on a playground, spouses, law suits- you name it.  Things often get more complicated and everyone feels under more scrutiny when third parties get involved.  The people at odds start to justify their own actions,becoming more entrenched in their actions rather than more willing to see the other side, no matter how silly, or trivial the matters may be.  Each party will try to deflect blame and responsibility, and the third parties end up feeling like arbitration judges, mediators, or simply parents trying to get two kids to quit fighting over a toy.

(As a lawyer, I can tell you that the first round of any case is always  the “he said, she said” portion, and the truth of the matter always lies somewhere in the middle.  That’s where the resolution lies, and the faster you can get to the heart of the matter, the cheaper it will be, emotionally and economically for everyone.)

The Social Autopsy

The concept of a social autopsy is really quite brilliant.  Like in a “root cause analysis” in medicine or the military, you hear both sides of the story, and then walk through the process that led up to the problem, with both sides looking at what they did, or failed to do, that led up to the ultimate conflict.  Often, it’s pretty clear where the trouble began, and where each party could have done more, or chosen different actions, to avoid the ultimate disaster.  The trick in this process is to make the learning from the mistakes as non-judgmental as possible.  If one party feels solely to blame, or feels under the gun, resentment will prevent either side from taking away the lessons that can be learned.  When it works well,  everyone leaves the process with a deeper understanding of each other, and how to avoid similar conflicts in the future.

We can choose not to argue about silly things with friends, neighbors, coworkers or family members. We can easily decide to choose our battles and disengage from things that seem pointless.  But when we are dragged in as mediators between third parties, it means the situation is already in bad shape, and we’re like the UN, forced to find the peaceful and reasonable solution between battling factions.

Social autopsies can help defuse tense situations.  Hopefully, they provide learning and let each side move forward constructively.

In the current situation, I can advocate for my child and see where the miscommunication occurred, but I certainly do not hold sway over the teacher involved.  My child has had to, essentially, “lawyer up” by having me advocate on his behalf.  I certainly hope the resolution we strike will work and we won’t have to escalate things further.  It will all depend on whether we can strike that balance between working towards a common goal and the blame game.  Time will tell.

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