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Family and Consumer Sciences

College of Agriculture, Life Sciences and Natural Resources

LIFE - Individual Growth and Development

Problem Solving

No matter how well a couple gets along, communicating and decision-making take time and effort. Even partners who share the same values and styles face challenges on where to spend their time, money, and energy. Exploring the options for action, planning and living practical choices work best when partners use a step-by-step system. If partners have different ideas or are in conflict, familiar and dependable steps for meeting challenges are important for working things out.

Problem is used to describe a challenge which takes more than routine rules and effort to resolve. Problems may result from good events--"What should we do with this million dollars left us by Uncle Harry?" Even unhappy events can inspire positive outcomes: "How can we learn to talk out these things before we explode and ruin our day?" or "Now that we're both unemployed, what do we really want to do with our lives?" The problem solving process is a way of channeling energy and imagination to make the most of resources and relationships. Try it,

Seven Steps to Solving Problems

  1. Define the problem--Sometimes figuring just what's not working or needs to be changed is the hardest thing in problem solving. Here are some reasons:
    • Too busy to sort things out--Things may become chaotic or conflicted, but life is such a blur that it's hard to figure how things got that way (or how to get things back in order). Set aside time to relax, reflect, and talk.
    • Too complicated--Demands from all directions and entangled with each other create a jumbled or overwhelming mess to think out. List them all, think about how they are related, which you can do something about (and which to forget), and what needs to be tackled first.
    • Too charged--Problems often have practical, emotional, and relationship components. Fear of hurt(ing) feelings or broken relationships may lead to avoidance (raising tension) or blow-up which distract and drain energy. Even simple problems contribute to high stress as they pile up. Using the list above, reflect on how experience, emotions, and ego needs contribute to the level of stress (or difficulty in clearly seeing) related to the problem.
  • Some problems may need to be defined in several parts (yours/mine/ours; now/later; what can be solved/what must be endured; practical l/emotional levels) but all become more workable as partners work toward a common understanding of the issues, feelings, and viewpoints.

    Once partners come to a common description of the problem(s) to be solved, they can turn loose energy and imagination on exploring options through:
  1. Focus on needs, not solutions. Better understanding the challenge(s) which require new attitudes and habits is the key to finding solutions which fit. To use a practical example, recognizing the need to remove water from spaghetti (or spaghetti from water) after boiling may define the problem. Considering other needs (not burning self, keeping noodles hot and clean, avoiding spills) helps describe the dilemma, making possible a wider range of solutions. Helpful ideas in describing needs include:
    • Describe rather than judge. Focus on identifying sensations, feelings, and wants to be addressed rather than whose fault it is or what to do about it.
    • Action rather than attitude. Focus on specifically what needs to be donerather than just how each partner feels about it.
    • Ownership. Note whether the need is felt by one or both partners, if it is in the relationship or external to the relationship, and how it has been noticed or dealt with in the past. Sometimes, the problem is personal (attitude) or must involve other persons (co-workers, parents).
  2. Brainstorm possible solutions--Use imagination to invent many possible solutions, emphasizing quantity rather than quality. Avoiding quick or "pat" solutions and allowing for novel or seemingly absurd alternatives often leads to better adjustment. Some useful tools in brainstorming include:
    • Convergent thinking--Identify the most basic step/action and list every possibility (ex: separating hot water from spaghetti--let it evaporate, dip out water, pick out noodles, blast out noodles, soak up water, etc.) and later think about feasibility or specific tools needed to implement the solution;
    • Divergent thinking--Using your favorite theme (travel, music, sports, movies) consider every possible idea that it might suggest (ex: travel--look over a brochure, read a book or try a virtual tour, make reservations, go by foot-skateboard-bike-motorcycle-car-truck-tank) and later look for applications that work (for instance, cooking noodles in a sieve in a tank, so that they can be pulled out by the handle from the hot water)
  3. Choose the best option--Compare notes, discuss the options, and match solutions to needs to select the best alternative. Setting criteria (ex: cost, efficiency, simplicity, appearance) for selecting an option may build consensus and guide decision-making. Keep an open mind during discussion to add new information, options, or strategies to the discussion. Even after deciding, agree to experiment and reflect to fine-tune the solution.
  4. Make a plan--Discuss or outline (depending on how complex the problem) who will do what, where, and when. Draw a timetable and responsibility chart and hang it on the refrigerator. Talk with others who have worked on similar problems to gain insight on how to manage step-by-step. When the problem involves conflict, identify "pressure points" and slow the pace, structure discussion, or use humor to recognize and work through them agreeably.
  5. Implement the plan--Experiment or try to change one step or aspect of a problem at a time (often the easiest, rather than top-priority or high-stress step is best). Some ideas that promote effective implementation include:
    • Rehearsal--Practicing a change in behavior before a need or crisis arises improves confidence and performance when a challenge occurs. If practice is not possible, small-scale implementation may allow phase in (ex: cooking together as a step toward each taking primary meal preparation times)
    • Flexibility--Allowing for adjustments in time, pace, skill, setting, and strategy provides for practical changes needed for effective solutions.
  6. Seek feedback and evaluate both the process and the outcome--Plan to review results of the change process on a regular basis. Focus on describing what is happening (rather than blaming), exploring how new strategies are working, and what each partner is learning. Celebrate solutions; accept and learn from difficulties or failures (ex: OK, so the colander's holes were too big and half the noodles got out--it was funny!) Build on successes to take on other challenges, listen to and care for each other, and overcome past fears and hurts.

It's not a problem to be solved, it's an adventure waiting to be experienced

When challenges are faced optimistically and together, the energy and imagination of two people combines to accomplish the work of three or four individuals. Affirmation, acceptance, and openness--built through routine and relaxed times together--are critical to both healthy growth and crisis management. While not all challenges are as logical as the steps outlined above, a positive outlook and persistence in using those tools can help things turn out well in the end.\

Developed by Ben Silliman, University of Wyoming Cooperative Extension Service, Family Life Specialist

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