Challenge or problem?


How your use of words can paralyse people and block a change!


We all know it, someone who comes up to you and says he has a challenge for you. You immediately know what is meant: “there is a difficult situation, and it is up to you to solve it”. How different would it be if the same person came up to you and told you they had a problem? What would your reaction be then? When we work with clients and someone in the group says “…we have a problem”, my first reaction is “Great!”. I often get a very surprised look because people are not used to such a reaction. That surprise is nice because it gives me the chance to explain.

Both in Belgium and in the Netherlands, we like to look at the other side of the North Sea. We are dealing with British influences in music, entertainment, and language use. And you notice the latter immediately in conversations. Fun has become “nice”. And uncomfortable now is “awkward!”. Incidentally, with an exclamation mark because it is used more as a stop word. Turn it around and use “ongemakkelijk!” as a safe word, that’s really awkward!

But it’s not just the use of words, also British understatement has crept into our Dutch language. And with that, the step has been taken to no longer refer to a problem as a problem. It comes packaged as a challenge. Incidentally, this is not a recent event. We have had no problems for years, but only challenges. It has become a form of learned behaviour: “I have a problem. Oh no, you can’t say that. I have a challenge”. How often do you hear that said or do you use it as a statement yourself?

Where does the term “challenge” come from? Just a short sidestep. You challenge someone to do something special. The challenged person has the choice to take on the challenge or not. Historically, he picks up the gauntlet – and rises to the challenge – or not. It’s a choice. 

By softening the situation. Replacing the word “problem” euphemistically with “challenge” will give you a different response. People’s behaviour is not what you actually envision. The essence is that you’re looking for a solution to the problem, isn’t it? Take a look at the following sentences and consider your reaction to them:

  • Oops, then I have a challenge….
  • Oops, then I have a problem….

When someone tells you that they have a challenge for you, it is more likely to evoke a passive behaviour in you. After all, a challenge is about a choice that the other person has made and for which he is now looking for a solution. Good luck with that! But when someone says that he has a problem, it sends a stronger signal of a (still passive) request for help. As a result, we, as social beings, are more likely to post the reaction of “can I help you with something”. Even without a real request for help. Apart from the fact that strictly speaking someone does not have to take on a challenge. Then you just have to call it an assignment or ask a question for help, so the word challenge has something non-committal in it. When you use this language, the other person doesn’t really know what to do. From hierarchy, the reaction will probably be that he will do the task. But no sense of necessity is included. This means that there is a hint of non-commitment about it. So, you don’t know when the task will be done.

For the collaboration, the challenge is also not something you want. The challenge belongs to someone else, so why would you cooperate? The direction in which you try to turn a problem around is a solution. In the event of a problem, it is easier and clearer to ask for help to work together on the solution. More and more often you also hear that someone wants to “challenge” the proposal. Here, too, there is a form of criticism of the proposal. Instead of indicating for which part someone still sees problems, it is packaged as a challenge. This unclear way of communicating is paralyzing for the recipient and is disastrous for the progress of the project.

Communicating (the 3rd block of the model 9 Building Blocks for Connection) is crucial for the dynamics of the team. Not only to share the right information and keep each other on track. But certainly, also to continue to support and motivate each other. A problem? We’ll solve that together! Call the creature by its name. Or as we say here in Belgium: “you have to call a cat a cat”. Think of it: “Houston, we have a problem!” is different from “Houston, we have a challenge!”.

When using your language, be sure to pay attention to the euphemism of the word “ambitious”. Indicate when a plan has no chance of success instead of saying that it is an ambitious plan. Be honest and transparent. Don’t try to obscure what you actually want to say. There are enough yes-men and -women in the world already.

Incidentally, as a team you can certainly have a challenge. You can take on the challenge together to implement a very ambitious plan. But then you choose together to pick up the gauntlet and do everything you can to achieve the almost impossible. In this case it is your own choice to do it!

Do you want to know more about how the right language can strengthen your team and your projects? Feel free to call me or Mirjam. We are happy to help you.

Have a great day!



More about group dynamics and change in
  • the blocks (chapters) “to communicate” and “to visualize” in our book Cement (in Dutch)

Edwin is not just a visionary expressed through his longreads, but also adept at conveying his ideas through presentations and real-world client interactions. He is a lover of Scandinavia and that's noticeable. Through an array of examples and metaphors, his infectious enthusiasm becomes a catalyst for inspiring, motivating, and fostering connections among individuals. Collaborating closely with his wife and partner, Mirjam, Edwin leads individuals through periods of change. Their shared mission revolves around forging impactful connections – connections that ignite leadership inspiration, foster team cohesion, and catalyze organizational transformation.

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