problem solving
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Problem Solving

by Stuart Sorensen - RMN

Everyone experiences difficulties at some time or another - that's part of life. In fact many psychologists would argue that facing and overcoming life's challenges is essential if we are to develop into strong, mentally healthy people. Put simply 'having problems is no problem'. The trick is to learn how to deal with our problems and challenges effectively and efficiently.

Easier said than done you may think. Some problems just seem insurmountable and no matter how hard we try we just can't seem to see our way through them. The answer is often to work 'smarter' instead of 'harder'.

Most people will go to extraordinary lengths trying to resolve their difficulties and often achieve no more than exhaustion without making any positive impact on the problem. They will run themselves ragged without ever standing still long enough to get a clear perspective. That's where problem solving skills come in.

The following is a simple, step-by-step approach which can be applied to almost every type of problem. It is based upon clear thinking and taking appropriate action.

The steps

Define the problem

Have you ever felt as though you just can't see the 'wood' for the 'trees'? Many people become so wrapped up in the emotions surrounding their problems that they forget to understand the problem itself. This is rather like trying to find your way around a strange town or city without bothering to consult the map. If we are to understand fully our way out of difficulties we first must be just as clear about the difficulties themselves. The following questions are useful as a framework to help define the problem in precise terms. Please don't underestimate this first step toward problem solving. No matter how clear thinking you feel you may be in for a surprise.

Questions in problem definition:

1 What EXACTLY aren't I happy about?
2 How will this affect me?
3 How will this affect others?
4 Can this situation be changed?
5 Does this situation need to be changed?
6 Is there any good in this situation?
7 What can I learn from this?

Make sure that what you think of as a 'problem' isn't simply a 'fact'

Problems are things which you can change - obstacles to be overcome, challenges to meet. Facts are situations which cannot be changed. If you are defining a fact as a problem you are simply setting yourself up for a mountain of frustration. There's really isn't any point in trying to change the unchangeable. If you can't alter the situation - accept it.

Define your outcomes - specifically

This is by far the best way to determine a problem from a fact. If you decide in advance exactly what you want to achieve you'll get a very good idea of what is and is not possible.

The other major advantage of outcome definition is that it's crucial to the planning stage of problem solving. If you don't know what you want you can't plan to achieve it. In choosing outcomes it helps to be as specific and as clear as you possibly can. The more precise you are the more likely you are to achieve your objective - or at least something very close. Incidentally that's why we use the word 'outcome' instead of 'goal'. People don't always achieve their goals but they always get an outcome - often the outcome is better than the goal they'd originally intended.


An example would be defining earning outcomes. It's OK to decide you want more money but that may prompt you to get a low paid part-time job to supplement your income when actually what you need in specific terms is a much larger amount. If you need 1,000,000 then be specific about it. Don't waste time on projects which don't have a chance of achieving the million. If you know what you want - specifically - you'll make plans which have a chance of working. 

If you want advice - be careful whom you ask. There's no point asking a poor man how to become a millionaire.

It's always good to get advice but be careful. Don't ask someone who's depressed to help you be happy. If they knew the answer to that they'd already be doing it for themselves! Ask people who've already achieved the outcomes you've set for yourself - they're much more likely to know the answers.

Make a tangible plan - work backwards if necessary and be specific

Many people find it easier to plan 'in reverse'. They imagine the result they want - their outcome - And then work backwards in their imagination. For example if you want to be well the step before that may be to take medication. The previous step may be to talk to the psychiatrist while the step before that was to make an appointment with him. This then is the first step to take. Once you've outlined a step by step plan of action for yourself - take action NOW. The most effective plans are those which people act upon immediately and keep acting upon until they achieve a satisfactory outcome.

Be realistic - outcomes must be attainable, observable and measurable

There is absolutely no point in making plans to reach the stars if all you have is a bicycle! However realistic does not mean unambitious. Studies in sports psychology suggest that outcomes and plans should 'stretch' your potential without being disheartening. Whatever outcome you choose should have about a fifty:fifty chance of success. This will encourage you to strive to achieve without destroying your confidence. Often the actual outcome will represent something like 75% success but that may well be enough. Remember that not getting EXACTLY what you would have wanted doesn't necessarily mean the end of the world.

Outcomes should be measurable. This means that you need to recognise when you've achieved your preferred outcome - otherwise you may simply keep trying to improve upon a situation which is actually quite satisfactory in itself. Be very clear what you want, how to measure it and the indicators you will observe as evidence of your progress.

Understand the 'worst case scenario' and plan ways to deal with it

Of course this is the real world and catastrophes do occur. Sometimes the very thing we are most afraid of is precisely what happens. In situations such as these it's always helpful to understand the implications of disaster and make plans to deal with it if and when it happens. This is what we call a CONTINGENCY PLAN.

Preparing for the worst is also an excellent way to stop worrying about what MIGHT happen so we can get on with the business of making sure that it doesn't. In addition, if we can plan to get over the worst possible scenario anything else will seem like a 'piece of cake' in comparison.

The techniques outlined here are of course no more than ideas. Like any form of self-help handout it's only helpful if you put it into practice. Simply knowing the techniques and understanding the skills isn't enough. The next time you begin to feel overwhelmed by problems take a deep breath, relax as much as you can - see the handouts on anxiety management for further details on how to achieve this - and start planning. After all - clear, precise action is bound to be more effective than the 'paralysis of analysis'.

If you need more information about this subject please feel free to discuss problem-solving skills with your primary nurse.

Compliments of Stuart Sorensen RMN

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