Generate more creative solutions with this question.

Thursday, 09 Mar 2023

One of my favourite podcasts is Tammy Lenski’s ‘Disagree Better’ as it has so many applications to the school context given the relational nature of schools. She suggests the following shift in asking a question that so many of us are fond of asking our children.

When faced with a problem, we often ask ourselves or others, “What should we do?” It’s not a bad question at all, but research suggests a better question for prompting more creative solutions. 

Consider this genuine dilemma: a family of four visits a three-Michelin-star restaurant in Modena, Italy. The father orders a popular dish for the entire family; the dish contains snails, raw potatoes, coffee, nuts, and black truffle. The maître d’ notices that the two children look a bit stricken at the prospect of “snails under the earth.” He asks the youngest boy what he would like to have. The youngest replies, “Pizza!” Unfortunately, pizza is not on the menu at this kind of restaurant. What should the maître d’ do? 

By asking the boy what he wanted, he’d inadvertently created a dilemma for himself. It’s common to ask, “what should we do” when we’re problem-solving. In ethical dilemmas it’s pretty much the default question. When we turn to our colleagues, loved ones, doctors, therapists and others for advice, what do we generally ask? “What should I do?” It’s not a bad question. In ethical dilemmas, it’s an important question. ‘Should’, after all, reminds us that there may be moral imperatives that cannot be ignored in the solution. 

The trouble with ‘should’, though, is that it places a mental constraint on our option-generating. ‘Should’ focuses our thinking narrowly on options that align with obligation, duty, correctness, and the like. To relax those constraints, there’s a great question to ask before getting to should: What could we do?

In 2018 research that explored ways to grapple successfully with difficult “right vs right” ethical dilemmas, researchers found that beginning a problem-solving conversation with “what could we do?” changes the trajectory of the discussion, prompting the kind of divergent thinking that’s a hallmark of creativity.

The researchers suggested that contemplating “could” solutions before “should” solutions allows people to generate options they otherwise would not have considered. They went on to say that adopting a could mindset helps individuals utilize their creativity constructively to explore alternative solutions.

The restaurant story came from one of the study’s authors. Fortunately for the young boys in the family of four, the maître d’ had a creative “could” mindset. He telephoned the city’s best pizzeria and soon after, a taxi arrived with pizza for the boys.

It may well be that you are less likely to use this question at a Michelin restaurant but consider when kids come home complaining about another child or what happened in the playground. Traditionally, we may have answered “What should you have done?” Perhaps it’s worth shifting that question to: “What could you have done?”  The first elicits a response based on a child telling us what we want to hear. The second elicits a response that engages the student to think. 

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