September 02, 2012

Problem-Solving Solutions

Many of us know the basics of problem-solving: define the problem, brainstorm possible solutions, choose and implement a solution, evaluate the outcome, start over as needed. But despite knowing these steps, we can still find ourselves implementing a poor solution, avoiding a problem and not seeking solutions, and struggling with problems that don't have solutions.

I learned a problem-solving framework at a positive psychology conference I attended recently. It doesn't solve your problem, but it identifies the type of situation you're dealing with so that you can address it effectively by either problem-solving or letting go.

Here it is:

In your control
Not in your control
Take action
Taking charge
Don’t take action
Giving up
Letting go

a) Taking charge: Once you figure out that your problem belongs in this quadrant, this is the best kind of situation. You realize that you can take action, and so you do. For example, if you're unhappy at work, you either address your needs with your boss or look for a new job. If you're frustrated because you never have time to exercise or see friends, you stop and identify what's getting in the way, and look for ways to reorganize your time.

b) Giving up: When you're in this quadrant, you have some degree of control over your problem but you don't realize it, and so you feel helpless and resigned. For example, say you've been unhappy with certain elements of your romantic relationship for years, but don't bring it up with your partner because you feel like it's too late. Or that you've steadily gained weight over the course of a few years and are unhappy with your appearance, but conclude that it's your destiny to be overweight and that there's nothing you can do about it.

c) Struggling: Not having control is frustrating and anxiety-provoking, and we often respond to these emotions by trying to control the uncontrollable. For example, say your dog is dying and rather than accepting the facts, you repeatedly gouge your savings for expensive treatments that prolong his life by days. We're particularly prone to fruitless struggle when we try to control other people: for example, say you've rented a cottage for a week's vacation with your extended family, and you--and only you--believe it's important for everyone to eat three meals per day together; you spend a good part of your week cooking, assigning and organizing meal duty, and struggling to get your reluctant parents, kids, and siblings to the table for breakfast, lunch, and dinner--at the expense of your own enjoyment of the vacation.

d) Letting go: In this quadrant, you realize that there's little you can do about your problem, and you use that knowledge to let go and accept the situation as it is. Letting go can be as minor as finally accepting your freckles and putting away the foundation you carefully applied every morning for ten years, or as major as realizing that your baby doesn't know or care about your carefully-designed birth plan, and is probably going to arrive in his or her own way and on his or her own time.

I just learned this problem-solving framework, but I suspect that the more we can address problems by taking charge or letting go, the happier we'll be. Taking charge allows us to feel competent and act effectively; letting go can create a sense of relief; and knowing which quadrant we're in prevents us from attributing weight gain to destiny, sticking with a miserable job, trying to control childbirth, and hiding our pretty freckles.

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