What’s the Difference Between Problem Whining and Problem Solving?

Johanna's Problem Solving LoopI see problems—often system problems—everywhere. It’s partly that I trained myself to see problems. Sometimes, I trip over them. (Literally. Ouch.)

I like to solve problems, too. That’s what consultants do. Most often, we get paid to solve problems. At times, I like to offer these services for free. I might be inflicting help or problem whining when I do that.

I fly from Boston’s Logan airport. It’s an old airport, with a small footprint. Last week, I returned to Terminal C. Able-bodied people are just fine with exiting to baggage claim. There’s an escalator. However, there is no elevator at the exit. People like me, who cannot take an escalator have to ask for an escort so I can exit through the alarmed doors. Then, we proceed down a hallway of offices with zero signage to an elevator to baggage claim. (See, whining!)

Because I have a long-term memory of this terminal, I sort-of remembered how to get to an elevator. I did find it. I’m not like Charlie on the MTA.

I’ve complained about Terminal C in the past: the insufficient handicapped access, the insufficient signage, insufficient pre-check availability. I finally decided I would stop complaining/whining. I have an alternative: I will not take any airlines that fly out of that part of Terminal C. The aggravation level is not worth it.

I use a problem-solving loop as above to help me stay in problem-solving mode. I did that with an extensive discussion with various people from Massport and the airline earlier this year and last year. I’m done. If I try to engage them now, I’ll be whining.

Why? Because the people I can engage with aren’t able to solve this problem. It’s a system problem and they don’t have the clout. They can’t generate alternatives, try something to see if it works and continue.

I’m not sure who does have the clout. All I know is this: The people “in charge” have done the best they can. They added a single sign inside the gate area. They provide a grudging escort on demand. There are people at the end of the long hallway who could help, once we get through the hallway. That means my travel is just short of miserable. I prefer to have a more positive experience.

This is an example of a system problem, where the solutions I can generate are insufficient for the problem. I would need to engage other people to really solve the problem.

I am not whining now. I have decided to take my business elsewhere. A different option, altogether.

This is exactly the same problem that people have in organizations. That’s why we have this lovely quote:

Change your company or change your company.

In the first part, it’s about helping to change your company’s practices or culture. In the second part, it’s about you changing your company.

In my case, I’ve decided to change my airline choices. There is a system problem I have insufficient power to solve. Everyone I spoke with earlier is a lovely human being, trying to do a good job. However, their best efforts are insufficient for my needs. Maybe their efforts work for other people.

As adaptable problem solvers, we have to decide when we’re done trying to solve this problem. Instead, is it time to go meta, and decide if you’re whining or solving?

That is the question this week: What’s the difference between problem whining and problem solving?

6 thoughts on “What’s the Difference Between Problem Whining and Problem Solving?

  1. sascha

    Dear Johanna, thanks for your perspective, I currently was thinking about the same thing. It made me sad somehow. You’re absolutely right, I do agree with you in every point. But… For me it feels like there is a difference whether you’re whining about something “distant” (like an airport or a company you used to buy things) or something you somehow are personally attachted to (like your job, your friends, your home). Stop whining about those things for me means giving up on them. And hearing from someone close to you that you should stop *whining* about how they behave for me always is kind of a slap in the face. Nonetheless, your conclusion still is right: At some point you have to let go. And a slap in the face usually is a good point for doing that.

    1. johanna Post author

      Sascha, hmm, I think I need to write a post about being attached to things or outcomes. For example, I can want to be taller than I am. (I’m five feet tall.) It’s never going to happen. I can only get shorter from here. I think part of the “slap in the face” part is how we perceive the problem.

      I can (and use) these alternatives: stepstools, organizing my kitchen and office so I can reach whatever I need, and asking for help. Do I wish I was taller? Absolutely. Can I address my problem? Yes.

      For *me*, that is a different problem than wanting my job to be different and feeling stuck. I felt stuck in a job many years ago. I bought the health insurance for my family through my job. I needed to go somewhere else, and I felt stuck. It took me a while to generate my options then. Luckily, the company paid me to leave (long story, best layoff I ever had).

      I realized several years ago when my vertigo got much worse that I was no longer able to dance. Not socially, not the competitions I entered with my husband. I was—and still am—quite sad about that. I choose not to talk about it so no one hears me whining. But I still yearn for those dancing days. I whine inside, not outside.

      I think there’s something here about how we feel about our perceived and real lack of choices and the outcomes we want. Let me noodle on that for a bit. Thank you.

  2. Pingback: Are You Attached to the Process or the Outcome? - Create An Adaptable Life

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  4. Rebecca

    At some point whining needs to stop and we just need to move on to reframing/finding different possibilities.

    But there is also another point I wish you could write about as I suspect you have some insights there….what is it that causes you to move away from whining and how do you know when it is time to stop/let go? I think that for me, personally, there are times I hang on far too long trying to change things. I’m not one to give up. But when I do find myself ineffectually whining that is when I should be reframing/moving on. Making those pivots in thinking are interesting to consider.

    I remember doing a lot of morning journaling, several years ago. The process was supposed to “free you up” to imagine possibilities. But rereading those journals, I found I was just doing a lot of whining instead. And it was getting repetitive. Sometimes you have to just work through it…but I wonder how I could avoided all those hours of whining to myself. Not very productive (so I stopped journaling).

    1. johanna Post author

      Rebecca, you might want to read Are You Attached to the Process or the Outcome?. I think you describe being attached to the process quite well with the morning journaling exercise.

      As for when it’s time to stop/let go? For me, it’s partly aggravation and the realization I need to go meta to solve this problem. (See How Can You Generate Options When You Feel Stuck?.

      I’m going to link to all the posts in this surprising-to-me series when I write the one about feelings. I think (yes, my feelings are not as accessible to me as I would like!) that I feel differently throughout this process. I’m working on that post now. It could take me all week to write!

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