As a mediator and conflict resolution specialist, working on some exciting and complex situations has been my pleasure. After one session between two boards of directors, the chairman of one of the boards complimented me by saying I am not a problem solver, but rather a solution provider.

I did not know what he meant by that comparison, so I asked him. He explained this to me. Given his comments and several years of reflection on the difference between problem solver and solution provider, along with the experience of many negotiations and mediations, I want to share with you some thoughts.

These thoughts are related to this topic and might help you when you find yourself in a conflict or negotiation.

What is problem-solving?

In short, problem-solving is simply the act of defining a problem, determining the cause, and taking appropriate action. My book, The Collaboration Effect, offers insights into developing authentic, genuine, connecting relationships, listening actively to all parties to fully share their concerns, and after fully understanding the situation offering ideas.  These ideas should be there to help educate the other party.  You will want to have listened to understand their perspective on the facts, issues, the emotions associated with those issues, and their interests. 

When you listen here are ten great tips:

  1. Ask good questions that demonstrate you are paying attention and keep the other person speaking.
  2. Don’t interrupt the other party.
  3. Don’t finish their sentences for them.
  4. Don’t say “I know”.
  5. If you receive a compliment, simply say thank you.
  6. Avoid the words “but”, “no” and “however”.
  7. Keep your eyes on who is talking.
  8. Don’t try to impress the other person with how smart or funny you are.
  9. Empathize with the other person.
  10. The more you let them talk and listen to them the more impressed they will be with you.

Once you have a very good handle on their perspective you can educate them on what you perceive of the facts, issues, emotions attached to the issues, and interests.

Here is a 10-step process of working together to address issues collaboratively using project management skills:

  1. Define the problem.
  2. Listen to understand the emotions and facts behind the issues.
  3. Identify and clarify interests.
  4. Generate options.
  5. Determine the impacts of options economically, environmentally, and socially.
  6. Evaluate the impacts of the different options economically, environmentally, and socially.
  7. Potentially select a solution or a hybrid solution.
  8. Consider implementing the solution or return to an earlier step.
  9. Consider testing the solution.
  10. Consider the Best Alternative to a Negotiated Agreement (BATNA).

When working on a specific problem collaboratively this process can be very effective.

However, sometimes the participants don’t realize that they may have

 an even broader problem concern than what they originally identified.

How might this be discovered and what techniques may be appropriate in this instance? In situations like this having a solution provider may help the parties find even better solutions than what the parties originally identified as concerns.

Solution Provider     

A solution provider asks a lot of questions directly related to problem-solving as elaborated above.  However, a true solution provider goes well beyond this focusing on asking questions that cause the parties to look at the issue more broadly and even redefine what the issues are.

A Solution Provider Example

Two parties come together to address the price of something. They work through the 10 steps above and reach an impasse.  A solution provider enters the process, meets with each of the parties separately and gains trust the solution provider brings the parties together (if possible) and begins to ask questions related to quantity, timing, conditions, and how elements of the negotiation may be perceived by other stakeholders.  Just raising these issues, it becomes clearer that if any questionable or potentially unethical positions are being taken how these will be perceived by others.

Think about shareholders, other customers, vendors, suppliers, or other stakeholders.

Sometimes simply asking this question can cause a party to rethink their perspective and look at the situation more constructively. This can lead to a breakthrough and cause one or both parties to begin to consider other products, other divisions of the entity with other products, mutual interests that were not thought of previously, and creative ideas may be generated. This is but one example.

Some other ideas related to solution-providing

Explain the logic of what they might gain. Turn a concern into an opportunity. Take the time to ask questions about tradeoffs and ask questions about various pros and cons of a potential solution or set of solutions. You may be able to overcome a blockage and find a way to address the concerns of approaching the blockage differently.

Agree that you can make preliminary agreements on how the negotiation proceeds, but nothing is fully agreed upon until all issues are resolved.

Everything is tentative as you work through various issues.

This demonstrates that each of you are working through this with good faith, but you also must be cognizant of the big picture before you can reach a final agreement.

Finally, consider multiple offers that may be equal and see how the other party responds.

Each offer may have multiple elements associated with it.  Give this some serious thought. Depending on how the other party responds to this, the result may help you better respond to their concerns and interests. What was not as important to you may be very important to them or vice versa. Knowing this can help you craft a solution that works better for both of you.


What has been offered here are some ideas that may help you more creatively work with others and enhance your value by not simply being a problem-solver but becoming a solution-provider.  The differences were introduced and three ways to add value in a negotiation were offered.  Consider various tradeoffs with multiple offers by logically explaining what might work for you and why. Then practice your listening skills by listening to their concerns and coming up with a creative solution that works well for both parties.

If you’re looking for some assistance or want to learn more related to collaboration or conflict resolution, or enhance your Servant Manager skills, check out these links. 

About the author

Mike Gregory is a professional speaker, an author, and a mediator. You may contact Mike directly at and at (651) 633-5311. Mike has written 12 books (and co-authored two others) including his latest book, The Collaboration Effect: Overcoming Your Conflicts, and The Servant Manager, Business Valuations and the IRS, and Peaceful Resolutions that you may find helpful. [Michael Gregory, ASA, CVA, MBA, Qualified Mediator with the Minnesota Supreme Court]