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Work on Problems, Not Symptoms

Part 2 in my series on problem-solving
Part 1: Problem-Solving: 5 Basic Components

Listen to this episode of the Focus with Marlene Podcast:

Get caught up with all episodes in the Developing a New Focus series.

We often confuse our initial emotional responses as the problem itself. However, our emotional reaction is the byproduct of problems.

For example, you find yourself reacting with anger whenever your spouse suggests something. Before you even take time to consider the request, you have already identified the problem as your spouse.

The real problem – unresolved conflicts between the two of you and inability to communicate appropriately – hasn’t been identified.

For further reading: Information Emotions Give Us

Emotions are always an integral part of the problems we face.

They can be as small as frustrations or annoyance. Or they can be heavy with worry, concern, and anxiety, knowing that the decision we make will have a long-lasting impact on those involved.

The problem comes when we go with our first emotional reaction instead of considering in-depth the actual problem and options.

It’s not just anger or anxiety we experience, but fear. Nothing perpetuates fear faster than regenerating it through our thoughts.

What are you saying to yourself about you and your situation?

While we need to commiserate with friends and share our problems and concerns, it is the continual stream of conversation we have with ourselves 24/7 about that problem that becomes harmful over time.

If your brain hears you constantly saying how bad things are, how little control you have, how helpless you are, how others are so much better off than you, etc., you will begin to act in that way.

If you think there is no use in trying, you will have little creative energy to move forward.

Our thinking can produce a self-fulfilling prophecy. Negative beliefs soon become a reality.

We can perpetuate the problem, or we can find ways to resolve it. We can give up or we can generate determination and an “I can do it” attitude and mindset.

5 Ways to Rationally Identify the Problem

Before we start resolving problems, we need to step out of the emotional arena, put on our rational thinking cap and properly identify the problem.

1. If you find your emotions taking over your rationale, stop and deal with them first. Repeat some calming statements to yourself, such as, “I can do this,” or “There are answers to all problems,” or “I can ask for assistance and input.”

2. Focus on taking slow even breaths. It is hard to think when our anger, fear, or anxiety levels remain high.

Tell yourself: No matter how hard it is, giving up is not an option.

Woman looking into cracked mirror

3. Focus on the things you can do, not what you can’t do. Problems can become like a mirror – we stand in front of them and all we see is the problem. We polish it; look at it continually, and our problems become our frame of reference for life.

Put up a new mirror that reflects possibilities and options. Let go of what is not working, even if it worked at one time.

4. Next, identify specifically what the actual problem is. Sometimes it is obvious; other times it is difficult to separate problems from their symptoms.

If others are involved, include them in this process. How does each person perceive the problem? This is especially important for couples and requires listening skills and clearly communicating wants, needs and goals.

5. Once the problem is defined, list all the options that might resolve it. Ask others to help brainstorm.

Then evaluate each option, prioritize, and choose one to try.

When other people are involved in the outcomes, their concerns, time, and association need to be considered. Even simple decisions like family times or family vacations require a willingness to work together and negotiate.

Many problems can be avoided by planning ahead.

Parents who have periodic family meetings listen to their kids’ concerns and establish basic household rules, responsibility for chores and duties, play time, etc. While kids are included in the discussion, the parents maintain the last word on resolutions.

Problems connected to aging can be reduced by putting in place end-of-life wishes, thinking through a retirement financial plan, etc. Even with pre-planning, however, problems will arise that you had not anticipated.

5 Components of Problem Solving

Let’s expand on the 5 basic components of problem solving that I introduced in last week’s post.

1. Identify and define the problem. Separate it from the symptoms. Is this an ongoing problem or a recent development? When does the problem emerge? What has helped to minimize intense emotions in the past? What has worked and what has not? Gather and analyze as many facts as possible to determine the underlying problem. There may be several problems. Identify and clarify each.

2. Identify what and who is involved. Separate individuals from behaviors. The focus is not on people but actions and what is happening.

Work together with others who are directly involved to seek acceptable resolutions. This requires active listening and communication, taking responsibility for your emotions, expressing your needs and preferences and a willingness to work together to find solutions instead of blaming.

3. Brainstorm. Generate as many potential solutions as you can. Make a list of whatever comes to mind, even if it seems far-fetched at the time. In reviewing your list these can often stimulate further options that might be important.

4. Evaluate and implement. What are the pros and cons, positives and negatives of each? Select one, create a plan of action, and implement it. If several people are involved, be sure everyone understands their part.

5. Make an assessment. Is the problem being resolved? If not, try another one. Don’t feel as though you have failed. You won’t know if it will work until you have tried.

Some solutions create additional problems you may not have anticipated. Don’t hesitate to keep searching. It isn’t how quickly you find the right solution, but that you methodically and consistently work through it to find one that will work.

Here are some typical life problems you might be facing. Using the example above, how would you look for solutions?

  1. My spouse and I keep arguing and blaming each other for the problems we have. How do we resolve it?
  2. My parents are aging and having difficulties. How do I assist?
  3. Our families are always arguing and fighting. How can I help resolve conflicts?
  4. I am having difficulty with my in-laws. How do I bridge that gap?
  5. The high cost of living keeps increasing making it difficult to meet my obligations. Where do I begin?

Creative solutions usually come after much thought, patience, and a willingness to fail.

It took Edison 9,000 times of failure before he was able to discover the right filament for his electric light bulb. His response to why he kept at it was, “I haven’t even failed once; nine thousand times I’ve learned what doesn’t work.”

Think more about the process of discovery than the results.

Expand your view of perception from one of tunnel vision to thousands of options. Become like children who love to explore, experiment, watch and observe.

Problem-solving is a skill that once learned will become automatic in your thinking.

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