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A Communications Model of Problem Solving

Chapter 5: A Communications Model of Problem Solving

Tools for Communications
By: James J. Messina, Ph.D.

Steps to helping an individual solve a problem

A nine step method for problem solving follows:

Step 1: Help the person think of the problem in words that refer to self, e.g., How is this a problem to me?

Step 2: Help the person focus on specific feelings and reactions to the problem.

Step 3: Help the person to own specific feelings about the problem.

Step 4: Help the person explore how thinking, feeling, or action can contribute to the problem. Help the person answer: What am I doing that contributes to the problem? Not doing
Step 5:
Help the person identify and list specific changes in behavior designed to solve the problem. Brainstorm solutions to the problem. (Leave no idea out of the brainstormed list.)
Step 6:
Help the person answer: Of the generated list of behavior changes, which am I most willing to try and/or able to accomplish?
Step 7:
Help the person commit to adopting the most realistic changes in behavior.
Step 8:
Help the person review the solutions identified (the brainstormed list). Weed out the impossible, consider the rest, and put solution(s) into practice.
Step 9:
Set a date and time to review the behavior changes and solutions. If the problem remains unsolved, adjust the plan as necessary.

Steps for two people in solving a common problem

Step 1: Problem recognition by the two

  • Acknowledge the problem facing you both.
  • Accept personal responsibility for your individual parts in the problem.
  • Establish priorities
  • Choose problem areas under joint control.
  • Give priority to pressing problems (crisis situations).
  • Choose a problem less difficult than the others to begin with.
  • Choose a problem that, when corrected, will bring about general improvement for both parties.


Step 2: Problem definition by the two

  • Make a How to … statement in which the problem appears solvable:
  • The statement should name specific goals (rather than general, vague ideas).
  • The goals should be stated in positive terms (rather than negative) so that the problem will appear solvable.
  • The statement should deal with tangible, unmet wants, and needs.


Step 3: Alternatives generated between the two

  • Jointly explore your personal “helping” and hindering factors.
  • List the resources, helping factors, and advantages that will allow resolution of the problem.
  • List the hindering and limiting factors and disadvantages, keeping you from your joint goal.
  • Underline the factors in each list that seem most important now.

Jointly generate alternative solutions.

In brainstorming alternatives, follow these rules:

  • All ideas should be heard.
  • No idea is too wild to be expressed.
  • Quantity is wanted; each idea coming to mind should be expressed.
  • Combining ideas for improvement is highly desirable.
  • Criticism or negative discussion regarding ideas is absolutely forbidden
  • Maximize the helping and minimize the hindering factors.
  • Adapt solutions from similar problems solved in the past


Step 4: Evaluation and decision making by the two

  • Jointly analyze alternative solutions
  • Predict the possible OUTCOMES of each alternative.
  • Determine the PROBABILITY of each outcome.
  • Consider the DESIRABILITY of each outcome (list pros and cons).
  • Does the solution overcome the hindering factors?
  • Does the solution make use of the helping factors?
  • Does the solution create new problems or new advantages? If so, can the problems be corrected or the advantages used?
  • Rank the alternatives in order of preference.

Make your joint decision based on:

  • The ranking of the alternatives.
  • Joint values.
  • The practicality of the solution and the probability of success for both.
  • The ability to move gradually and systematically toward joint goals.

Blocks to productive problem solving include:

1. Using reassuring clichés, e.g.:

  • Everything will be all right.
  • You don't need to worry.
  • You're doing fine.

Reassuring clichés often are given automatically, without thinking. Sometimes they are used as filler during embarrassing moments or emotional outbreaks. Saying Everything will be all right,  may reduce your friends' anxiety, but such a response may result from an unrecognized need to reduce your own anxiety—to make yourself feel more comfortable. Reassuring clichés block problem solving because (1) they tend to convey that you feel they are worrying needlessly, (2) that you are not interested in or do not understand their problems. You can reassure your friends by communicating facts of a positive and pertinent nature. Assisting others to clarify their position is important to problem solving.


2. Giving advice:

  • What you should do is …
  • Why don't you …

By telling your friends what to do, you impose your own values, opinions, and solutions on them rather than helping them explore their ideas and allowing them to arrive at their own conclusions. Even when they clearly ask for advice, you should be cautious in your response. Encourage them to explore and identify their feelings about the situation.


3. Requesting an explanation:

  • What happened to you?
  • Who can we see about this?

 By requesting an explanation, you ask others to analyze their feelings or actions immediately. You keep them dealing at the cognitive level by asking questions. Although generally questions are useful in determining the nature of the problem, those that ask “why” can be intimidating. Such probing may make others feel uneasy, causing them to invent a reply. Who, what, when, and where questions used in clarifying identities, things and events, times and places will elicit factual information. How and why questions demand reasons, causes, and purposes. This is information often difficult or impossible to verbalize.


4. Agreeing with your friend:

  • I agree with you.
  • You must be right. I feel the same way.
  • Of course, he was wrong …

Introducing your own opinions or values into the problem can prevent others from expressing themselves freely. By agreeing with them, you can make it difficult for them to change or modify their opinion later. If they have expressed ideas other than what they actually believe to be true, they (in the heat of the moment,) may be hesitant to retract emotional statements for rational ones.


5. Giving approval:

  • That's the right attitude.
  • That's the thing to do

Giving approval can sometimes create a block by shifting the focus of the discussion to your values and feelings. Most importantly, you imply what is or what is not acceptable. It is possible that you may approve behavior of which the others actually disapprove—such as crying, expressing strong feelings, or hurling insults.


6. Expressing disapproval:

  • You should stop worrying like this.
  • You shouldn't do that.

 When you indicate disapproval of others' feelings or actions, again your own values are imposed on them. Such a negative value judgment may intimidate or anger the others, increasing their feelings of guilt and hopelessness. This effectively halts communication.


7. Contradicting your friend:

  • You're wrong
  • That's not true.
  • No it isn't.

 By contradicting your friends you indicate that what they have said is unacceptable. You are setting yourself up as the authority figure. This may be threatening to them and may keep them from expressing themselves further on the subject. It may make them defensive or angry, as you are denying their feelings and their right to be themselves.


8. Changing the subject:

  • Oh, by the way …
  • That reminds me …
  • Let's talk about that next time.

 You can misdirect the course of problem solving by changing the subject. By doing this you are not giving the others' the freedom to discuss what they wish. Having been blocked once, they may abandon further attempts to make their feelings known. You may be changing the subject to avoid dealing with a problem that makes you uncomfortable at a conscious or subconscious level regardless of your friend's needs

Useful responses in problem solving include:


1. Exploratory responses:
Exploratory responses to those that encourage friends to stay deeply involved in the problem–solving communication and, at the same time, give them freedom and latitude in their responses. They are encouraged to become active participants in the communication rather than passive receivers of your advice and knowledge. You help them to feel free to reject, disagree, or modify your comments and observations. Your responses encourage them to explore further, to go deeper to expand, to elaborate, and also to assume a great deal of the responsibility for the direction and comfort of the problem– solving process.


2. Listening responses:
By this response to problem solving, you actively and deliberately communicate to your friends that you are listening and trying to understand. You ask for clarification whenever something is unclear or confusing. Periodically you paraphrase or check with them what you think they have said. These responses offer proof to them that you are really listening and trying to understand. Also, in order for you to test your understanding, you ask them to confirm or deny what you think you have heard. Listening responses communicate that they are being taken seriously. They are encouraged to think carefully about their own statements—to take themselves seriously and to begin listening at least as closely to their own concerns as you have been.


3. Affective–Cognitive responses:
The word affective refers to feelings. Cognitive refers to the content or context of the story line.
Affective responses generally are about emotions, feelings, or bodily states, such as fear, anger, tension. These responses attempt to maintain and intensify your friends' focus on the “feeling” parts of their problem statements. You use this response mode when you want to encourage them to focus more clearly on underlying attitudes, values, and gut–level reactions to their problems.

Cognitive responses are those related to the “information” parts of a person's statements, usually seeking facts. Cognitive responses shift the interaction to a thinking or analytic mode. Making cognitive responses is a little like listening to the words of a song and ignoring the music.


4. Honest labeling:

An important part of communication is the feelings people have about each other as they converse. Labeling these here– and–now feelings often requires a great deal of courage. Frequently, the only time you offer others honest feedback in the course of your daily communication is in a fit of anger. Often you may choose to respond in a vague, less than completely honest or specific way because you think others are unable to deal directly with their more troublesome concerns. When you choose not to be honest, you do so out of your own concern and desire to save face. Often the others assume that you are unwilling to engage in or to assist them in problem solving.

Ten Role–Play Situations for Effective Problem Solving


1. A husband, the primary wage earner in the relationship, is married to a trained professional, who has been home for the last five years taking care of their two young children. The husband announces to the wife that since he has received only a 3% raise in each of the last three years, there is a need for more money to come into the household in order for them to keep their heads above water, to meet their needs, bills, etc.


2. A child wants her father to spend more time with her at home. It seems that Dad has a new job that requires him to spend many evening hours on the road and at the office.


3. A boss complains that her employee has lost that zest or zing he once brought to the job. The employee agrees that things are certainly different from when he was first hired.


4. A husband wants his wife to make a renewed commitment to the marriage by going through an anniversary renewal of their marriage vows. The wife seems put off by such a request saying I am here, aren't I? That's commitment, isn't it?


5. A woman finds some foreign strands of long, red hair on her boyfriend's suit coat as she is hanging it up in the closet. The boyfriend walks in and begins complaining about how obsessive she is when it comes to things, asking why does she always have to hang his clothes up, saying he can do it himself.


6. Two friends had an argument last night when they were visiting a third friend. They have not spoken since. The issue was the same old thing: one nagging about the other's drinking.


7. A wife announces to her husband that she desires to go back to graduate school to get a doctorate in her field. The husband announces at the same time his intention to quit his job and open his own business.


8. A worker is sensitive when it comes to smoking. He is allergic or, at least, physically affected by smoking. The other worker is a chain smoker who finds it difficult to quit and is defensive about all the antismoking legislation.


9. A woman cringes and complains whenever her male friend drives the car because he speeds. The man cannot relax when the woman drives because she is overly cautious and he is sure they will get into an accident.


10. A support group member resents putting in so much time on his sessions. He finds that he is getting behind in his work because of the support group activities. He confides his concern to a fellow support group member.