Problem-solving 101

Problems are a part of everyday life, so it’s important to be able to find and carry out solutions effectively. You might face external problems (things out of your control such as your car breaking down unexpectedly), relationship conflict (with a friend or partner), or problems at work or within your unit. When those problems hit, there are tools you can use to stay mentally healthy, keep your relationships strong, and help your team operate effectively.

One way to think about a problem is as a challenge that results from too many demands and not enough resources. For example, your partner is TDY, both of your kids have soccer games at the same time, and you’re trying to manage the situation without someone getting upset. Or you’re simply overwhelmed with “to-dos” and not sure how to better manage your time. Sometimes you’ll face a problem you’re able to manage on your own using your internal strengths and resources. Generally, that’s called “intrapersonal” problem-solving, and it can include those coping strategies you use to help navigate issues with others.

There are problems you face together with family, friends, or teammates too. Sometimes it’s more comforting to confront challenges together and draw on each other’s resources. However, these types of problems can be harder to solve because you have to work together, even if you don’t always agree. For example, a problem might arise between you and your partner about where to go on vacation or which set of in-laws to visit during the holidays. Or maybe you disagree with your coworkers or teammates about how to complete an assigned task in the field. Addressing these types of problems that exist between people is called “interpersonal” problem-solving.


Often, the problems you face will require both intrapersonal (using your own mental or emotional resources) and interpersonal (using good communication and collaboration) problem-solving skills.


Strategies for intrapersonal—or “within”—problem-solving

Those aspects of problem-solving that are “within” you are a good place to start honing your solution-finding skills. And the better you are at managing your internal problem-solving process (what you think, feel, and want to do), the more successful you’ll be at handling problems with others.

  • Shift your thinking. It’s normal to wonder how you’ll get through a tough situation. You even might find yourself lacking the confidence to find a solution. But rather than focusing on “problem talk,” think of obstacles as challenges and chances for growth. Challenge the assumptions you have (especially when it comes to your own capabilities) and look outside the box. Notice the resources you do have, think positively, remember you do have control, and stay committed to keep working until you find a resolution.
  • Manage your feelings. Think of emotional regulation as a tool in your toolbox that allows you to take on or disengage from different emotions when it’s appropriate. For example, if your A/C breaks in the middle of the summer, it’s understandable that you might get frustrated, but that won’t help you figure out how to get it fixed. Once you can set aside unhelpful feelings, you’ll be better able to stay rational, brainstorm options, gather information, and figure out a course of action.
  • Focus on the process. Remember that problem-solving is a process: It’s important to assess your perspective, weigh your options, try them out, and evaluate the outcome. Rather than avoiding, procrastinating, or impulsively trying solutions, carefully tackle your issues one by one head-on.

Strategies for interpersonal— or “between”—problem-solving

Problem-solving with others is a bit harder than tackling issues on your own. In addition to using your intrapersonal problem-solving skills, you also might have to use your communication and conflict-management skills in order to reach a resolution. Interpersonal problems can happen in any relationship, and the impacts can be significant. For example, problem-solving and decision-making are often some of the top issues that couples struggle with. Conflict with teammates or coworkers can hurt team performance as well.

  • Maintain flexibility. Particularly for problem-solving with teammates and fellow unit members, it’s important to adapt and shift as needed. In these situations, you probably have to work together to overcome an obstacle or complete a mission. As a group, it’s important to keep an open mind, evaluate everyone’s perspective, and maintain team cohesion.
  • Remember to cooperate. Whether it’s with your friend, partner, or battle buddy, effective problem-solving is about finding a solution that works well for everyone. It can be easy to either dominate the other person, compete, and push your perspective, or to simply accommodate and “give in” to reach an end point. However, true problem-solving is about collaboration that creates a good outcome and mutual advantage for everyone.
  • Use each other’s strengths. When you and another person (or group) are tackling an issue together, it’s important to remember that you have twice as many ideas and twice as many strengths as you would if you were doing it on your own.
  • Focus on the process together. Just like with intrapersonal problem-solving, it’s important to stay connected to the process. Especially when it comes to solving problems in your couple relationship, it can be helpful to sit down and really talk out, step-by-step, how to tackle an issue or reach a decision. Start by identifying the problem, brainstorming solutions, and deciding what to try first.
  • Practice good communication. When it comes to addressing issues with others, communication is key because you have to work together. It’s important to be able to share your thoughts and hear the opinions of others. Remember to avoid argument traps that might lead to conflict and get in the way of finding a resolution. And if you do find yourself in a conflict, take a break. While you’re cooling off, think about your intrapersonal problem-solving skills and focus on putting aside unhelpful feelings.
Resources

Behfar, K. J., Peterson, R. S., Mannix, E. A., & Trochim, W. M. K. (2008). The critical role of conflict resolution in teams: A close look at the links between conflict type, conflict management strategies, and team outcomes. Journal of Applied Psychology, 93(1), 170–188. doi:10.1037/0021-9010.93.1.170

D’Zurilla, T. J., & Nezu, A. M. (2010). Problem-solving therapy. In K. S. Dobson (Ed.), Handbook of Cognitive-Behavioral Therapies, Third Edition (pp. 481). New York, NY: Guilford Press.

Jordan, P. J., & Troth, A. C. (2004). Managing emotions during team problem solving: Emotional intelligence and conflict resolution. Human Performance, 17(2), 195–218. doi:10.1207/s15327043hup1702_4

Nezu, A. M., Nezu, C. M., & D'Zurilla, T. (2013). Problem-Solving Therapy: A Treatment Manual. New York, NY: Springer Publishing Company.

Olson, D. H., & Olson, A. K. (1999). PREPARE/ENRICH Program: Version 2000. In R. Berger & M. T. Hannah (Eds.), Preventive Approaches in Couples Therapy (pp. 442). Philadelphia, PA: Brunner/Mazel, Inc.