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Problem-Solving: "There's A Hole in the Bucket" and Other Closed Loops
by C.S. Clarke, Ph.D.

There is a children's folk song usually called "There's a Hole in the Bucket." It's a very long, frustrating song. Generally sung as a kind of musical conversation by one male and one female or a male group and a female group, it tells of an encounter between "Henry" and "Liza."

The short version of the story is this: Henry has a hole in the bucket he uses to fetch water and complains of it to Liza. Liza says "well, fix it," and then the fun begins. Fix it with what? Straw! Straw's too long. Cut the straw! With what? Axe! Too dull. Sharpen it! With what? Stone! Too dry. Wet it. With what? Water! Where from? The well! How to get water? In a bucket! But there's a hole in the bucket!

How many times have you had a conversation with someone stuck in an insolvable problem loop? It could be with a friend, co-worker or boss. He presents a problem to you as if he wants you to help with it, but when you have suggestions, he shoots down every one as already tried and failed. In the end, he's got the same problem and you'd like to just smack him. Eric Berne described the process in "Games People Play" as a game called "why don't you/yes but." The title of the game tells you exactly how the dialog sounds. And the underlying purpose of the game is to complain and vent emotions while proving that the problem has no solution and the "victim" is helpless to do anything, so he doesn't need to try to do more.

Although most people experience the "game" in their personal lives, the same sequence recurs with regularity in workplace issues. An organization has a problem, but the naysayers find unacceptable flaws in every possible plan. The "powers that be" then hire one or more teams of outside consultants who, recognizing the game, simply engage them in exercises to help them better identify and analyze their problems so they can "think" about them better. Which would work only if they were interested actually doing the hard work of recognizing the real problems and in making the changes necessary to resolve them. The naysayers are change-resisters. (Almost everybody is a change-resister. When change is necessary, you almost invariably have to be pushed by uncomfortable circumstances or led by someone who can help you find motivation. Recognize it in yourself, so you can lead or push others.)

There is only one way out of the hole in the bucket problem -- realize that the problem is not the hole in the bucket. Step outside the closed loop. The problem in the song is that you need a way to get water, not a way to fix the bucket. Don't help people go around in mental circles while they whine and complain. Their problem is they feel helpless and hopeless not that they are helpless. Don't engage. Don't play the game.

When you must deal with the "hole in the bucket complainer," learn instead to ask leading questions that guide him to focus on what is the real problem and what resources he has or can get to resolve it for himself. Keep returning the responsibility for solutions to him. Make him think and suggest. Make him commit to action. Make him commit to record and report his problem-solving activity. He needs to take, record and report on his actions for his own sake. He needs to not be let off the hook for making his own solutions. The more you sympathize and let him complain, the more certain he becomes that he is helpless and that he is absolved from solving his problems.

(A word of warning: if you are dealing with someone who is a true victim, someone who is traumatized, don't try to make them responsible for their "problem." In the long run they will have to deal with it, but it takes time and professional assistance. That holds true even if it is long-standing problem, such as adult survivors of childhood abuse or a rape survivor. Unrecognized and untreated trauma can last a lifetime. Also remember that when you encounter someone who plays the closed-loop negativity game, they may engage in the game because they truly are untreated victims and it is the only defense they know. They apply it to everything without conscious awareness that it is a past trauma that is affecting their attitudes, beliefs and behavior. Be gentle in your responses to the "game." You never know.)

When dealing with the "hole in the bucket" folks in the workplace, no matter what your level of power and authority, you can't just "give" solutions to others. The only real help you can give is to lead them to their own answers. And make them responsible for doing what it takes to find the solutions. But if you are to help, you must recognize the closed loop when you see it and step out of it, knowing by the nature of the closed loop that the problem in the loop is not the real problem. Don't fix the hole in the bucket. Find a way to get water. And lead your team or co-workers to it without telling them where it is.


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