4-Step effective problem solving strategy

Category: Better Relationships | Author and Publisher: Elly Prior | First published: 24-09-2010 | Modified: 29-04-2018

Identify problems in a relationship or at work

Focus on remedies not faults. Jack NiclausEverything can be figured out

Sometimes problems seem to come in bunches, and/or a particular problem just feels overwhelming.

But don't despair - I'm here to walk you through my step-by-step problem solving strategies. I'm going to start with asking you all the right questions to help you identify really precisely where you need to spend your energy to solve the problem (see Part 2).

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Identifying the problem

Uncovering essential information as part of your problem solving strategy will prevent you:

  • solving only part of the problem and finding yourself having to deal with the same problem again some time later
  • solving the wrong problem
  • misusing your resources or leaving vital resources unused
  • becoming absorbed by the problem and too emotional, leading to a loss of objectivity

Abstract and over-generalised thinking causes minor issues to appear much bigger, and significant problems to appear unmanageable.

Being quite specific about what exactly the problem is will give you a more realistic picture. In turn, this will give you a better handle on the problem. You're less likely to feel overwhelmed if you approach issues with my problem solving steps.

You may also want to amplify your critical thinking with the Improve Your Critical Thinking hypnosis download (via my Hypnotherapy online FAQ page).

Stress too kills creativity. Pressure is okay, but stress stops you being able to come up with creative solutions. Here too self-hypnosis can be really helpful.

Dealing with several problems?

The first problem solving strategy is: start with the problem that is quickest to resolve. However, if you've had to resolve that problem several times already, it needs to be analysed to discover its root. Your problem solving technique so far may have been to yank at the weed, leaving the real trouble spot intact underground.

Is the issue you're dealing with a 'people problem'?

As part of your problem solving strategy, I'd really recommend that you familiarise yourself with the human givens (see link further down). These are our innate resources and essential emotional needs. When you take our human givens into account, you and the people around you will really thrive, and problems will be resolved that much easier.

Dealing with a relationship problem? Not sure whether to go or stay?  The problem solving tool to use for that is my Relationship Test.

Case study of the application of my problem solving strategies

The only way to solve a problem is to change the thinking that created it."

Albert Einstein (theoretical physicist, 1879 - 1955)

The case study below is a very simple example of how a problem seems to have disappeared. When you're dealing with a 'people problem', your problem solving strategies should include techniques to help calm someone right down.  

If you're feeling particularly emotional, then you too will feel much more capable if you can calm yourself, before you carry on with your attempts to solve the problem(s).

I'm a school/college counsellor as well as a couple counsellor, and a work-place counsellor/welfare adviser for one of the emergency services.

My client here was a young person in a college, but could equally have been an adult with a relationship problem, or a troubled employee. The crux of the problem was not the situation itself, but my client's perception of the situation...

Limited thinking - a case study

Jenny was unhappy, hated college, and decided she was going to change college after her exams. She didn't want to do the all-important final two years.  Jenny was the victim of emotional ‘black and white thinking’.

First of all, I spent some time calming her right down. Only then did I work with her to look at all the factors that 'created' the problem. I helped her to think clearly by asking the right questions (see steps below). We explored what exactly she thought was so awful and how often she was exposed to that ‘'awfulness'’. I also asked her who and what she liked and valued.

What was the exact problem? She disliked two teachers, one of whom she only saw one hour a week. She found one subject really hard, but had not asked for help. She had fallen out with a friend, but had already made new friends.

What was the real problem?  The real problem was her perception of the situation. Once her perception had changed, there simply was no problem.  The outcome?  Much to her surprise she found that in reality things were not so bad at all and she was happy to stay.  The situation hadn't changed, but her perception of it had.

Step 1: gather essential information as part of your strategy

The real problem may actually be very different than the one you think you have! Take your time with my problem solving techniques - don't rush the steps.

Don’t worry even if it takes you several days to answer the questions - think of it as a 'project' and a new start.  So why not make or pour yourself a drink, kick off your shoes and let's get started...

Take a big sheet of paper, draw a circle for each of the contributing factors and write in the details to start off your problem solving steps.

The time

  1. When exactly does the problem occur?
  2. When exactly is it at its worst?
  3. When does it not occur?
  4. Can you identify a pattern from this information?

The place

  1. Where exactly does the problem mostly occur?
  2. Where does it not occur?
  3. Can you identify a pattern?

The sequence

  1. What exactly is happening before the problem occurs?
  2. How exactly does the problem start?
  3. What is happening for the problem to continue?
  4. What exactly was your train of thought?
  5. What are you doing/feeling/seeing/hearing?
  6. Can you identify a pattern?

Other people

Friend or foe - how are they detracting from or contributing to your problem and problem solving strategies?

  1. What significant people are present or absent when the problem occurs?
  2. What do others/your partner/friend/colleague/family think about the problem?
  3. Who doesn't know about the problem and should know?
  4. What do you anticipate they might think when they find out?
  5. Can one of them act like the 'devil’'s advocate' to give you a completely different perspective?
  6. Can you identify a pattern from the information you've gathered?

The one and only - your personal problem solving strategies

  1. What part of the problem is for you to sort out and no-one else?
  2. What do you think are your personal 'weaknesses'?
  3. What evidence do you have for that?
  4. What actions can you take to turn those 'weaknesses' into strengths?
  5. Are you able to separate yourself from the problem by giving it a colour, name or shape?
  6. What part of the problem do you actually have (some) control over? 
  7. What assumptions did you make when previously trying to sort this problem?
  8. Do you need help with the problem?

Your resources and strengths

The most important aspect of any problem solving strategies is to look at your resources for solving the problem(s).

  1. What parts of your role as a partner/colleague/employee/employer are working well?
  2. What evidence do you have for that?
  3. What exactly are you doing that makes it work well?
  4. What skills and resources do you use in your spare time and at work?
  5. What are your achievements? (This could be large ‘one-offs’ or every day ‘small’ ones, for example passing your driving test, getting your PhD or cooking a meal)
  6. Who has solved a similar problem? How did they do it?
  7. Who can help and/or advise you whilst staying objective?
  8. Who can support and encourage you whilst staying objective?
  9. Who do you admire? And how, do you imagine, they might have solved the problem?
  10. What would you consider to be ‘life's little treats’? (e.g. a hot bath, first flowers in spring, looking at art, reading an inspiring book, etc.) It's vital to be aware of the things you consider to be treats when you want to recharge your energy!

Beyond the problem

  1. What would you be doing/concentrating on if you didn't have the problem?
  2. How exactly would you and/or the situation be different?
  3. What would your friends/family/colleagues notice about you/the situation?
  4. What would happen if you just ignored the problem?
  5. Could you view the present situation - although clearly not ideal - as an alternative solution?
  6. Are there any possible benefits to the situation?
  7. Can you make any changes, without having to solve the problem first?
  8. How would you ideally like it to end?
  9. What small steps can you take towards an eventual solution or part-solution?
  10. What can you do today that will make a difference tomorrow?
  11. Are there any other opportunities to turn a negative in a positive?
  12. What will you settle for if all else fails?

Step 2 - analyse and identify the exact problem

Question mark and ladder - solving your problems

You'll have already gathered specific details about the problem(s), so now I'd like you to take a deep breath, take a break and make yourself another drink. Then we can proceed with the following problem solving techniques...

  • Decide on your headings: either for every aspect of that one problem, or the different problems. Break things up into smaller parts if necessary
  • Draw a mind map or flow-chart, or draw the problem in whatever way makes sense to you
  • Include your resources under each heading
  • Think about whose problem it really is - it might not be yours... but do be honest with yourself
  • Write a short statement about the problem (this will help you to communicate more effectively with others)

The tree which moves some to tears of you, is in the eyes of others merely a green thing that stands in the way."

William Blake
Puzzle pieces in question and exclamation marks

Step 3

Well done for having completed another step! The next problem solving strategy is to devise a solution - finally! I know this is ultimately what you're looking for, however problem solving techniques are wasted if you end up dealing with the wrong problem. This could be either one that doesn't exist, or one that you create in the process of trying to solve it.

10 Point problem solving plan

  1. Decide what the ideal solution for you would be
  2. Decide on what you can live with
  3. Decide on an alternative solution
  4. Decide on the steps you can take right now to bring about some change. This will help you to feel more positive and in control
  5. Decide who you need to ask for help
  6. Decide on what you think other people might need from you and check with them
  7. Decide who you need to have a conversation with, what you would say and when that might be possible
  8. Make a list with exact timings of your planned actions. This is one of the most important problem solving techniques
  9. Set a review date to hold yourself (and maybe others) to account
  10. Sleep on it, but have a notepad by the side of your bed. Just as you drift off you may come up with the most brilliant of problem solving techniques. If you don't write it down there and then, you'll probably have forgotten by the morning!

You've now identified exactly what the problems and potential solutions are. Perhaps you've even broken them up into smaller parts.  

The next problem solving strategy is to deal with the smallest (or easiest) one first, to help build your confidence.

Alternatively, you can decide to go for the big one the moment you get out of bed and … get it done!

Step 4 - review your problem solving techniques and strategies

There's no point in having a plan with problem solving techniques if you don't review it. You need to check your progress against all your action points and their respective dates. 

The following questions will help you to mark the progress you've made...

  1. What exact problem solving steps have you taken to solve the problem (or even just part of it)?
  2. Which problem solving techniques and strategies were successful and which were less so?
  3. What should you continue to do? (i.e. what works!)
  4. What parts of the plan could do with an update?
  5. Are other people keeping to their side of the bargain?
  6. What can you do to encourage or remind them?
  7. Set another review date

There is no failure, only feed-back!

Applying my problem solving steps and strategies

These problem solving techniques can stop you from becoming flooded when you face a problem that seems hard to figure out. You can use all the above information to make a problem-solving flow chart - at home, in your relationship or at work.

Take your time doing it and sleep on it. You can also discuss it with someone you trust to help you uncover any blind spots. This easy to use decision making tool will help too.

Please, rate this article ...

I really hope this article is of help to you. :-)

I frequently update my articles based on feedback, therefore I really value your vote.

Thank you so much in anticipation. :-)

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Feel free to ask for help, or comment on this article

Elly Prior

Hello you! :-)

It's me - Elly Prior, I'm the Founder and Author of this site. I'm a 'real' person and I check the comment sections daily.

Do feel free to ask for help. I would gladly write a few lines to help you.

If my article in some way is of help to you, please let me know. I'd be so delighted!

Oh, and English is not my native language (I lived in the UK for many years). Whilst my articles are edited, my comments here are spontaneous and unedited.

Images courtesy of: Brett Jordan, Ken whytockChris PotterHoria Varlan