Effective Problem Solving

One of the reasons why people aren’t enjoying their human experience is that they haven’t learned to use the right skill at the right time for the right problem. All the skills in the world don’t mean a thing if they aren’t skillfully applied. Would you use a hammer to chop a tree down? Would you go fishing in the middle of a hurricane? Of course not! When problem solving, choosing the right time and the right tool are key to success.

Let’s look at relationships for instance. Many people coming to counseling are in crisis. They have reached a point where their resources and energy are exhausted and they want help. They come with the expectation that once they step through the threshold, something magical will happen. They will work on their issues, and then be in love again. That’s not how it works.

Crisis/Withdrawal Working/Conflict/Growth Maintenance/Intimacy
Goal: safety Goal: conflict resolution Goal: connection, sustainability
Primary action: remove or stop the thing that is provoking the crisis Primary action: negotiate a solution that fixes the short term issue and any big picture problems in such  way that is congruent with your values and desires and don’t create more problems. If there is another party involved, make sure that that person’s values and desires are also honored. Primary action: continue the flow of positive feelings and growth; stay in the flow of life
Sample Skills: fighting, fleeing, freezing, grounding Sample Skills: Agree to Agree; Stick to Values; Fair to Self; Apologize Less; Ask For What You Want; Validate: Appreciate; Brainstorm; Code Word; Persist; Ignore: Gentle Manner Sample Skills: make time for each other or yourself; connect; laugh and love
Who’s in charge? Taker Who’s in charge? Giver and Taker Who’s in charge? Giver

When you are in crisis, you need safety. The focus needs to be stabilizing the situation. Without that, you can’t move forward. Otherwise it’s like trying to build a house on sand.

Many people want to work in this stage, but that is not what is called for. It’s about care taking. When a person is in crisis, their Taker is in charge, which is as it should be. The Taker is concerned with survival. This may mean they want to fight you, say hurtful things to get you away from them, run away, or do all sorts of things to make the pain stop. Those are not usually the most effective tools in the long run, but they do work in the short term.

When someone is in crisis, either provide them with the safety that they need or leave them alone. When you are in crisis, seek safety. Don’t negotiate. Don’t try to get back to a place of intimacy. It doesn’t work. It’s the wrong strategy at the wrong time. It’s not effective problem solving.

Conflict is a working stage. It just means that something is not right. It’s not balanced. It’s not settled. Or perhaps it’s not being addressed at all. Lots of us think of conflict as a bad thing. It’s not. It’s just a question mark. When we problem solve wisely, the conflict goes away and we take a step towards intimacy or connectedness. If we make selfish, fear-based, short-sighted, or emotional decisions or avoid the issue, we generally move towards crisis/withdrawal. So, in actuality conflict is a just a gateway. It’s opportunity to improve the situation or deteriorate it.

problem solving

When in crisis, we have access to both our Giver and Taker. If we begin to feel that we are being manipulated or violated, our Taker will become stronger out of self-preservation. When we feel safe, our Giver will be more engaged. You can see, then, that negotiating fairly ends up meeting our own needs as well as the needs of the other party because it tends to result in a win/win solution.

Relationships can get stale when maintenance isn’t done. We often feel we can coast on good feelings and seeds planted in the past. Relationships are living things. If they are not well tended, they can get stale. This is why action is required in the maintenance phase. You must continue to give time and energy to your partner. This tends to be easy because your Giver is in charge. The challenge is to not take them for granted and put them on the back burner because things are so easy and going so well.

When you use the right skill at the right time for the right problem, you will have a greater chance for success. The chart above can help you determine what stage you are in and what problem you are addressing. Many people complain of communication problems, but they are really connection problems meaning I am not listening to you because I don’t feel heard. That can sound like an intimacy/maintenance problem – especially if what I want is your loving attention. However, if this is manifesting in such a way that we are yelling at each other, calling each other names, and walking out on each other, that is a crisis. The thing to do is NOT to work on our intimacy, but our safety.

If someone is walking away from you, don’t try to stop her. She’s in crisis. She’s trying to achieve safety! Even if you are in Conflict, you have to honor where both parties are. If either party is in crisis, the goal is safety. Safety is primary. It may be that you feel the problem is that there is no respect (as demonstrated by being walked out on). No, the problem in that moment is being overwhelmed. Can the person do something more effective to deal with that crisis? Yes, but know that when we are in crisis, we will do anything to make ourselves feel safe again. When it’s your turn, cope ahead so that stress doesn’t get to the boiling point and become a crisis. Take a time out. If it’s happening around you, recognize it for what it is and take a step back to diffuse the tension.

I know this is a lot of information to swallow, but once you’ve got it, it can help you to make more effective decisions in the moment. Problem solving can be seen for what it is, an opportunity, rather than a dreaded punishment to be avoided.

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