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When you are faced with a dilemma or a problem, how to you react? Before you answer, think back to a recent example or two. It doesn’t have to be your problem, it can be someone else’s.

Have you started sentences with things like “Perhaps it’s because she…”, “maybe he wanted…”, or “That must be because…”? When faced with a new situation, did you immediately reach for an explanation?

Postulating explanations is a fine habit. It shows knowledge and understanding, shows you are smart, know more about life than the next person etc. Some people need that, it boosts their confidence for a moment, makes them the ‘expert’. Except that it doesn’t!

The trouble with this habit is that it misleads us. What passes for an explanation is simply speculation. We don’t know the answer to most things, and we certainly can’t guess with accuracy at what motivates other people to do the things they do. One of the first things you learn when you study psychology is that there are hundreds if not thousands of competing theories about human behaviour, and new ones are popping up all the time.

Study psychology and you quickly find that you don’t know more than you’ll ever know. Even memory – recollections about things that we’ve actually experienced – is famously unreliable.

Finding solutions

The explanations that we offer ourselves are probably for our own comfort. They do little to provide answers, or ideas about how we can usefully respond to a dilemma. The problem with problems is that we generally need to fix or avoid them in future. Explanations are handy, and generating them is a good way of passing the time, but finding solutions needs a different approach.

The first step in avoiding the trap of speculation acting as explanation is to be aware of it and recognise it for what it is – guessing (even informed guessing is still guessing).

The next step is to ask yourself how you want to respond to the situation. If it is important to you to understand the cause, then the usual way is not a bad start. You could back it up with the help on an expert, or Google.

On the other hand, if you need a solution or a work-round, then searching for cause will most likely be a waste of time. Cause is one thing, and it lies in the past. Seoul find solutions by looking in the opposite direction, towards the future.

If your job involves apportioning blame or investigating accidents, for example, you’re on the right track if you use your acquired knowledge and experience to suggest answers to why something happened (experts call this ‘theorising’).

But if – like most of us – you need something to change and you are intent on finding solutions, then understanding the cause won’t help you very much. Put it this way, the difference is between “What happened?” and “What needs to happen now?” Finding solutions depends on the questions you ask.

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