Problem-Solving Skills

We are problem-solving animals. Our brains are designed to find solutions to enhance our life. This applies as much to practical problems of which we are very much consciously aware – such as how to deal with that difficult matter, colleague or client – as it does to problems that need addressing in one or more areas of our lives of which we are often only subconsciously aware – a nagging thought, perhaps, that something is not really quite right.

Whatever the issue, applying good problem-solving skills allows us to take action. Taking action lowers emotional arousal, thus widening perspective and allowing us to access our full analytical and rational resources. And it gives us a general sense of achievement that we have done something concrete about whatever the problem is.

How best should we approach problems in order to solve them?

  • Approach them when you have time and space to consider them calmly.
  • Drill down specifically into what the difficulty is, breaking it down into its component parts, and consider what level of control or influence you have over each one – remember to concentrate on solutions which only rely on what you do or how you react in the context of that level of control or influence. Also consider if there are additional skills which you may need to address the problem and where you might best be able to source or improve that skill.
  • Brainstorm possible solutions, from the sublime to the ridiculous, applying SMART principles (see the goal-setting article from last month).
  • As the cognitive behavioural school of psychology maintains, there is nothing like writing things down to focus the mind. Writing things down also allows us to step back and to literally put the problem outside of ourselves onto the page, where we can better form an objective view of the issue.
  • What are the pros and cons of each possible solution? You might want to use a numbering scale to rate the pros and cons for importance to you, as this can often give a different outcome than just the number of pros and cons on the page.
  • Choose one solution that best appeals and decide when you are going to implement it.
  • Take action!
  • Evaluate the outcome and plan what step you can take next. Did that solution work well? Could it have worked better with some tweaking? Really use the experience to inform yourself about what best to do next.

Above all, problems must not be allowed to assume a significance in your life that they do not merit. Allocating a fixed and proportionate amount of time to problem-solving (to worry well, as some would put it) means that whatever the difficulty, it is contained. If you are thinking about a particular difficulty for more than half an hour a day, this runs the risk of being indulgent and it is unlikely that fresh perspectives are being brought to solving it. You must get on with the rest of your work and personal life and enjoy the things which are working well.