People Are Not the Problem

When something goes wrong, most of us respond by looking for something or someone to blame. We default into asking, “What’s wrong?” and then we commonly answer that question with either “You!” or “Me!”

Judgments, criticisms, analyses, diagnoses, and power struggles usually follow, and we all know how those conversations go.

It’s not really our fault, though.

The cultures many of us were born into evolved out of historical systems of domination that continue to be legitimized and maintained by social structures, religious interpretations, and present day educational and economic systems.

Some of the more toxic psychological symptoms of these domination systems include the way we habitually perceive things through the lens of “what is wrong,” developing quick judgments and criticisms and then turning on one another in our attempts to “fix” things.

This works just fine when we’re dealing with inanimate objects, like a car that has a rattle. However, it’s a deeply problematic approach when it comes to living beings like humans, animals, or ecological systems.

Let’s say you’re pointing out an issue at work, “This storage room is a mess. It’s impossible to find anything in here. Who keeps doing this?”

You may innocently think you’re just pointing out an issue that needs to be addressed, but when people look for the “problem” in other people or themselves, they will often take comments like this very personally and then react defensively instead of collaboratively.

In other words:

  • When we have a habit of making people the problem, we conflate the issue with the person.
  • In this mindset, we are much more likely to take things personally.
  • Instead of focusing on the actual issue at hand, we’ll tend to hear comments like these as a personal criticism or attack.
  • And then, instead of making a plan to bring more organization to the workspace for everyone’s ease and well-being, people will begin defending themselves, blaming others, and feeling resentful and distrustful toward whomever is trying to “fix” a problem.

So, what can we do about this?

  1. Be hard on the problems, but gentle with the people. Recognize that people are not actually the problem; the problem is the problem.
  2. Treat people as intelligent agents of change, instead of as objects to be used, abused, controlled, or coerced. This is a profound shift in mindset: stop turning on one another and instead look for ways to harness the human potential for tremendous goodwill inherent in all situations and conflicts. Keep reading to learn how to do that.
  3. Identify the issue using neutral observations, not diagnoses or labels. Returning to our earlier example, we might say, “Things in the storage room are randomly put on various shelves by different people, and I’m having trouble finding what I need efficiently.” Describe what you’re observing inside and outside of yourself and keep that description as free as possible from interpretations of “badness” or “wrongness.”
  4. Focus on what is needed, not what is wrong. Clarify what improvement you’re after in the situation or circumstances and check for buy-in or agreement. For example, “I’d love us all to be able to find what we need quickly. Is that something you’d value or want also?” Notice my use of “we.” When we use “we,” I’m explicitly joining you on the same side by making it clear that I’d like my proposed solution to work for all of us, not just myself — that I am trying to contribute to everyone, not just myself. Also, notice that I begin by organizing the problem around a need or value (efficiency, ease, and speed of finding things), and I check that others want that also.
  5. Suggest a possible strategy to meet that need, and then collaborate and co-create with others from there. For example, “What if we labeled the shelves and all agreed to keep items in their correctly designated spots? Would that help us all find things more efficiently, or does someone have a better idea?”

There is a big difference between solving problems involving inanimate objects, like cars and buildings, and those involving living beings, like people, cats, or forests.

We need to stop pathologizing and punishing people. People are not the problem.

Healthy human beings are one of the most massively wasted natural resources on our planet today:

  • We are born for empathy, for love, for interdependence.
  • We come wired for social cohesion and kindness.
  • We are inherently pro-social beings who are invested in each other’s well-being — until we lose trust in other humans.

The human heart has the profound capacity to love life, love ourselves, and love one another, and this innate loving, connected nature within us is the most under-used resources we have to make significant, life-affirming shifts in our families, at work, and on our planet today.

Let’s start creating cultures and relationships that treat people with dignity, respect, and kindness.

When we create more psychologically safe places to live and work, people thrive. And when people thrive, problems can be solved with ease and efficiency.

Dr. Yvette Erasmus is a psychologist, teacher, and consultant who specializes in transformative education for human healing and growth. Synthesizing mind-body medicine, somatic experiencing, diversity and inclusiveness, nonviolent communication, and integral-relational-cultural psychology, Dr. Erasmus integrates core insights from multiple wisdom traditions and offers various programs for community learning as well as one-on-one consulting. To learn more, visit yvetteerasmus.com.

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Writer, speaker, psychologist, and consultant offering practical tools and insights for conscious, compassionate, courageous living. Based in Minneapolis, MN.

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Yvette Erasmus PsyD

Yvette Erasmus PsyD

Writer, speaker, psychologist, and consultant offering practical tools and insights for conscious, compassionate, courageous living. Based in Minneapolis, MN.

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