Problem solving is a skill that we all have. With some showing greater ability in this area than others one might wonder if this is a muscle that one can exercise in order to improve our problem solving abilities? Problem solving skills can be significantly reduced at times of acute stress such as those experienced when people suffer from episodes of anxiety, depression or addiction. In such instances the sufferer’s overwhelm can block their problem solving ability further fuelling the episode in question. It is for this reason that I often work on problem solving as part of a client’s therapy process, as a means of showing client’s strategies for coping with the daily hassles in their lives. The good news here is that a problem solving need not be a complicated skill to master. The trick here is to identify a problem and then go about solving it in a systematic manner. I particularly like the problem solving approach introduced by D’Zurilla and Goldfried (1971) in which they broke problem solving down into seven easy to follow steps:
- Define the Problem – As narrowly as possible.
- Brainstorm all possible solutions – At least 7 solutions. They don’t have to be solutions you want to do. Think of this step as an exercise in lateral thinking.
- Eliminate the most undesirable options – Leave you top three most desirable options.
- Select most desirable solution
- Explore obstacles – This is often where our problem solving skills fall down. This step is hugely important to keep the solution dynamic and realistic and dramatically reduces the chance of failure.
- Generate a plan for each obstacle – How can we get around each obstacle. If the obstacles prove to be insurmountable, we will leave this solution and return to step 4 for the next most desirable solution.
- Evaluate the Outcome – Reviewing the effectiveness of the steps and the solution will further reinforce this skill while also aiding in spotting any gaps that you may have missed.
I would generally advise clients to write the above process out when trying to solve an issue as in times of stress people’s heads are already spinning and thus their ability to focus on one issue may be compromised. In addition to this, the above process makes the problem more tangible and manageable if it is written out there on a page. So, give it a try. We’d love to hear how you found it.