Many of us may have forgotten how to solve problems ourselves, since with a flick of the fingers we can find a myriad of answers on Google. Despite the benefits Google affords us, it is important that we continue to practice problem solving strategies on our own, because there are some problems the internet cannot solve for us. There are 5 steps we can utilize when stymied by a nagging problem and although our problem may be difficult to solve, the process of solving it can be quite simple.
First, we must identify the problem. Sounds easy enough, but, in fact, there can be times when specifically identifying a problem is far from easy. It would be important to separate and narrow down each problem to be solved if there is more than one issue at hand. For example, if we feel anxious each time our in-laws visit, it might take some time to differentiate the issues that could be contributing to our anxiety. Perhaps we are anxious about the state of our home; perhaps our mother-in-law likes to take control; and/or perhaps when they come we are relocated to the uncomfortable couch in the den. Delineating each separate problem to be solved would be important when following these steps.
Second, we want to think of ALL of the possible solutions to the problem. This is the “brain- storming” step where every solution is considered before we move on to step 3. Let’s consider the example above deciding that being relocated to the den each time our in-laws visit creates a problem for us. ALL possible solutions might include: putting our in-laws in the den on the uncomfortable couch, buying a new couch, staying in a hotel, talking with our in-laws about the issue, or just continuing to sleep on the uncomfortable couch.
In the third step we would consider the consequences for each possible solution. Consequences can be positive or negative, and just refer to what will happen if we choose A, B, or C…. So, again, using the above example, we would consider the consequences for putting our in-laws in the den on the uncomfortable couch (perhaps they wouldn’t mind, maybe they would be insulted, maybe it would hurt their backs, maybe they would choose on their own to stay in a hotel…), buying a new couch ( maybe the new couch would be much more comfortable, maybe the couch would be as uncomfortable or even less comfortable, maybe we would have to forgo dinners out for a month to afford a new couch…), staying in a hotel (we might have to forgo dinners out for two weeks, our kids and in-laws might forge a new and closer relationship, our kids and in-laws might get on each other’s nerves, we might enjoy some quiet time alone, our in-laws might be insulted….), talking with our in-laws about the issue ( maybe they would be insulted, maybe they would be understanding and offer to sleep in the den or at a hotel…) or just continuing to sleep on the uncomfortable couch (we might become more and more resentful and anxious, we might hurt our backs, we might be able to find a comfortable mattress pad to make the bed more tolerable…)
Once we have progressed to step 4 we would mentally spread all of the options and their consequences out on an imaginary table and consider which option and possible consequences are most tolerable to us and make the most sense. We weigh the pros and cons for each choice by examining their possible consequences. Then we make the best choice we can considering these options. Finally, we implement the plan, telling ourselves that we have made the best decision we can at this time. If, in the future, we garner new information, we can modify our choice at that time without regret for the choice we had previously made. For example, if we decide to buy a new couch which turns out to be even less comfortable than the first one, we can reconsider our options at that time.
Try defining the problem, considering all of the possible solutions for that problem, considering the consequences for each possible solution, making the best choice you can given these options, and then implementing your plan, the next time you are faced with a dilemma. Following these five steps should simplify the problem solving process even if the problem you are trying to solve is not that simple.
Marcia Kaufman, Ph.D.
Licensed Clinical Psychologist