Decreasing Problem Saturated Conversations - Steve Barkley

Decreasing Problem Saturated Conversations

Marie-Nathalie Beaudoin writing in an ASCD article connected me to the term “problem saturated conversations.”  She states that what teachers talk about during their lunch break can have dramatic implications; it’s easy for negativity to creep into a conversation.

Narrative therapy describes a problem-saturated story as one that tells the story of an experience in a way that makes the problem powerful and visible and leaves the values, skills, choices, and responses of the person experiencing the problem less visible. ( Tiffany Sostar,,experiencing%20the%20problem%20less%20visible.)

It might sound like this:

Teacher 1: “I can’t handle the constant disruptions in my classroom. It feels like there’s always a handful of students who are disruptive, disrespectful, and refuse to follow any rules or instructions.”

Teacher 2: “I know exactly what you mean. I have a group of students who seem determined to disrupt the class every day. They talk loudly, ignore my instructions, and show no regard for their classmates’ learning.”

Teacher 3: “I’m dealing with the same issue. It’s exhausting trying to manage these students and maintain a positive learning environment. I feel like I’m spending more time on discipline than actually teaching.”

Teacher 1: “And it’s not just during class. I’ve received complaints from other teachers about their behavior in the hallways and during lunch breaks. It’s affecting the entire school community.”

Teacher 2: “I’ve tried everything – rewards, consequences, parent meetings – but nothing seems to make a difference. These students continue to disrupt the class and show no signs of improvement. It’s frustrating.”

The teachers are focusing on the problem of student behavior and the challenges they face in managing disruptive students. The conversation revolves around sharing frustrations and experiences that illustrate the lack of success in addressing the issue. There is a sense of helplessness and a lack of exploration of alternative strategies or seeking support from colleagues or administrators. The conversation remains problem-centered without actively seeking constructive solutions or discussing potential interventions.

Problem Saturated Conversations can lead to:

A Limited focus on solutions: They tend to focus extensively on the negative aspects of a situation or the problem itself leading to a lack of emphasis on finding solutions or exploring alternative perspectives. It limits the possibilities for constructive problem-solving and can impede progress.

A Negative impact on morale: Constantly discussing problems without actively seeking resolutions can lead to frustration, demotivation, and a sense of hopelessness which can have a detrimental effect on morale and motivation for teachers and students.

Decreased collaboration and teamwork: Problem-saturated conversations often involve blaming, complaining, or criticizing without productive outcomes. I have frequently identified that teachers can leave a PLC or team meeting feeling more frustrated or hopeless; feeling that it was worst than just a waste of their time.

Reduced creativity and innovation: Focusing excessively on problems can limit the ability to think creatively and seek innovative solutions. When conversations become saturated with problems, it becomes challenging to explore new ideas, experiment with different approaches, or think outside the box.

Wasted time and energy: Engaging in problem-saturated conversations can consume a significant amount of time and energy without yielding productive outcomes. Instead of investing resources into finding solutions, the discussions may become circular, repetitive, or dwell on the negative aspects. This can lead to a waste of valuable time and divert attention from more constructive endeavors.

What to do when you are hearing a problem saturated conversation?

Sostar suggests listening with compassion and care, and asking questions that invite a shift in the narrative focus. The refocus is onto the values, skills, choices, and responses of the person experiencing the problem. When exploring this practice with coaches, I describe the strategy as using an empathy statement. The first part of the statement recognizes what the teacher is feeling, and the second part looks to refocus.

Teacher: “The district has given us a new curriculum which causes a great increase in planning time on our part and now we have to have to attend these cross- grade level meetings taking more of our time.”

Coach: “A new curriculum does put planning time demands on your already stressed schedule. I am hopeful that our cross- grade level planning leads to greater student success which will reward us all”.


Coach: “It is a harried time for many teachers. What have you seen in the new curriculum that will be most helpful to your students?”

We can all practice identifying when conversations are problem saturated and look to refocus onto the values, skills, and choices that are available. Sometimes we may find that a problem saturated conversation is occurring in our own mind, and we need to initiate our own refocus; considering our values, skills, and choices.

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