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Problem-Solving, Step 1: Identify the Problem and Define the Conflict

Part 3 in my series on problem-solving

Problems usually demand a resolution.

Most decisions we make are so insignificant we rarely think about them, such as, “What will I wear to work today?” or “What shall I plan for dinner?” But other decisions are more complicated, demanding thoughtful consideration.

When symptoms keep us edgy and anxious, it may take a while to separate and identify the problem from the symptoms it is creating.

Problems need to be resolved as soon as possible. Sometimes we can put off for tomorrow or a later time. But usually, problems only get worse when not addressed.

How heavy is your problem?

glass of water

A professor was giving a lecture to his students on stress management. He raised a glass of water and held it up in the air. Then he asked the class, “How heavy do you think this glass of water is?”

The students’ answers ranged from 20g to 500g.

To which the professor replied, “Does it matter how absolute the weight is or does it matter how long you hold it before it becomes a heavy burden? If I hold this glass of water for a minute, it won’t be too heavy. But if I hold it for an hour, I will have an ache in my right arm. If I hold it all day, you may have to take me to ER. It is the exact same weight, but the longer I hold it, the heavier it becomes.”

We are created with a huge capacity to do impossible things, carry many burdens, and resolve difficult problems. When we use our energy to resolve problems, we will be amazed at what we can accomplish.

However, if we carry our problems and burdens and never put them down, we will become exhausted. Eventually our bodies will begin to break down under the strain and we will suffer mentally and physically.

Just like the glass of water that becomes heavier and heavier the longer we hold it, your problems will get heavier and heavier. If you put it down from time to time, rest in between, or figure out ways to hold it up, you can go on for a long time. You may even decide it isn’t worth holding at all.

How do you know when you have a problem?

Are you able to separate problems from the emotional reaction you have?

  • What is your first reaction when faced with a problem?
  • If others are involved, how do they respond?
  • How do you talk about problems with them?

Problems can be obvious or not so obvious. Decisions as to what restaurant we will go to for dinner tonight or what we could do to relax over the weekend are fairly easy. But others are more complex, requiring adequate time to think through and resolve so we don’t create more problems.

We get so caught up in the ongoing emotional turmoil that we do not recognize why we are so upset. When couples continue to fight and have disagreements about anything and everything, their emotions are in charge. They can’t think logically and coherently, unaware that neither is listening or concerned about how or what the other person thinks or feels.

(Further reading: That’s not what I meant)

Complicated problems are those that extend over time and often include other people. For example, my husband is getting older and wants to sell our home and move into a condo, but I’m not ready to give up my home.

Or, if I live alone, is it time for me to give up my home and move closer to my kids? I am still in good health even though I am getting older. Is this the time to sell my house or wait until I can’t live alone anymore?  

Step 1 – Identify the problem and define the conflict

Whether the problem is…

  • How I can improve my life?
  • How should I prepare for my financial future?
  • How can I take care of family?
  • How do I have a significant and meaningful relationship with others?

…We need to know what is the root cause of the problem.

We need to step out of that turbulent emotional arena and focus on resolving that underlying cause of our anger, worry, unrest, or distress.

3 sample problems

Problem #1:

I am the primary caregiver for an aging parent. This includes taking them to doctor’s appointments, shopping, or visiting them if they live alone. My days keep getting overloaded with caregiving and there’s no time left for anything else. How can I find time for me as well as caring for my parent?

Problem #2:

My spouse and I constantly aruge. Discussions often turn into quarrels that separate us instead of coming to a satisfactory resolution. How can we have a conversation without immediately fighting?

Problem #3:

The high cost of living keeps increasing, making it difficult to meet my obligations. Where do I begin?

Who is involved?

Let’s look at problem #1. In this problem, you may be the one who has stepped up to respond to this family need, but it still involves other members of the family. It takes time, patience, and a willingness to work together to find solutions. If there are no other family members, then problem-solving is on you alone.

Whenever others are involved, choose a time and place to have a discussion. This might be a Zoom meeting or an in-person meeting. Perhaps you can host a family get-together where the issue is discussed, and everybody is encouraged to have input.

Respect everyone’s contribution, even if you dislike or disagree with their ideas.

Problem-solving includes working with feelings and behaviors in a proactive way and requires active listening and perception checks for accurate interpretation.

If conflicts directly involve another person, such as in problem two, where there is ongoing conflict with your spouse, considering how the other person sees the situation is critical to reaching any agreement.

(Further reading: 4 catastrophic traps couples can fall into)

How do each of you see the problem? How does it impact each of you? (I will be posting about communication and conflict at a later time.)

Within intimate relationships, emotions can run high, and emotions are often accompanied by misinterpretation and misunderstanding. Everybody sees the world differently. When both people feel free to talk and be heard, points of view, assumptions, expectations, and personal perceptions can be discussed.

This is important not only when working through conflicts with a spouse, but when working with family members on other issues.

What outcome do you want and why is it important?

For example, is it more important to win an argument, or to be able to work together for a positive outcome? If the latter is your goal, then it requires a sincere willingness to negotiate and compromise.

In relationships and families, strong, passionate emotions are often triggered. When both parties feel free to articulate their point of view, assumptions, expectations, and personal perceptions, it can help us see the world from their perspective. But it requires active listening.


Recognizing/analyzing/defining problems

  • What is the problem? Who says it is? How do you know?
  • Who does it impact?
  • What are the underlying causes? Name as many as you can.
  • If there is more than one central problem, identify any substrates and separate or break them apart.
  • What has to occur for a solution to be reached?
  • Define specifically and clearly. Focus on the problem or task versus just the feelings. Eliminate unnecessary vocabulary. Stay on task.

Today’s challenge

Choose a simple problem you may be experiencing and try to identify accurately why it is a problem. Then think about how you will resolve it.

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