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Problem Solving

Problem Solving is a structured worksheet which encourages solution-focused thinking. Clients are encouraged to identify a problem, identify multiple potential solutions, then to take steps to put a solution into action.

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Introduction & Theoretical Background

Problem Solving is a helpful intervention whenever clients present with difficulties, dilemmas, and conundrums, or when they experience repetitive thought such as rumination or worry. Effective problem solving is an essential life skill and this Problem Solving worksheet is designed to guide adults through steps which will help them to generate solutions to ‘stuck’ situations in their lives. It follows the qualities of effective problem solving outlined by Nezu, Nezu & D’Zurilla (2013), namely: clearly defining a problem; generation of alternative solutions; deliberative decision making; and the implementation of the chosen solution.

The therapist’s stance during problem solving should be one of collaborative curiosity. It is not for the therapist to pass judgment or to impose their preferred solution. Instead it is the clinician’s role to sit alongside clients and to help them examine the advantages and disadvantages of their options and, if the client is ‘stuck’ in rumination or worry, to help motivate them to take action to become unstuck – constructive rumination asks “How can I…?” questions instead of “Why…?” questions.

In their description of problem solving therapy Nezu, Nezu & D’Zurilla (2013) describe how it is helpful to elicit a positive orientation towards the problem which involves: being willing to appraise problems as challenges; remain optimistic that problems are solvable; remember that successful problem solving involves time and effort.

Therapist Guidance

  1. The first step in problem solving is to identify a problem, difficulty, or dilemma which is bothering you, or about which you have been ruminating or worrying. Helpful things to ask yourself are:
    • What is the nature of the problem?
    • What are my goals?
    • What is getting the way of me reaching my goals?
  2. The next step is to generate a range of possible approaches to solving your problem, ideally solutions which are designed to overcome the obstacles that have already been identified. At this stage your job is to think of as many potential approaches as possible, it does not matter how outlandish or unworkable they may be. Generate at least three potential solutions. Consider:
    • “Can you think of any ways that you could make this problem not be a problem any more?”
    • “What’s keeping this problem as a problem? What could you do to target that part of the problem?”
    • “If your friend was bothered by a problem like this what might be something that you recommend they try?”
    • “What would be some of the worst ways of solving a problem like this? And the best?”
    • “How would Batman solve a problem like this?”
  3. Once a selection of potential strategies have been identified the next step is to consider potential advantages and disadvantages for each strategy, and likely outcomes of each strategy.
    • Consider short term and long-term implications of each strategy
    • Implications may relate to: emotional well-being, choices & opportunities, relationships, self-growth
  4. The next step is to consider which of the available options is the best solution. If you do not feel positive about any solutions, the choice becomes “Which is the least-worst?”. Remember that “even not-making-a-choice is a form of choice”. 
  5. The last step of problem solving is putting a plan into action. Rumination, worry, and being in the horns of a dilemma are ‘stuck’ states which require a behavioral ‘nudge’ to become unstuck. Once you have put your plan into action it is important to monitor the outcome and to evaluate whether the actual outcome was consistent with the anticipated outcome.

References And Further Reading

  • Beck, A.T., Rush, A.J., Shaw, B.F., & Emery, G. (1979). Cognitive therapy of depression. New York: Guilford. Nezu, A. M., Nezu, C. M., D’Zurilla, T. J. (2013). Problem-solving therapy: a treatment manual. New York: Springer.