Problem solving isn’t about the what, it’s about the how
Your son is struggling with fractions, actually close to tears while doing his homework. Your car has been making some awful rumbly sound that has you worried. Your boyfriend is angry with you—he felt you were curt and cold to his mother when you met her last weekend.
Life and problems, we all know the drill. At 8, it’s math. At 20, it’s your beat up old car. At 30, the boyfriend with his nose out of joint. And multiple times a day there’s everything else in between. The content is always a moving target—fractions, boyfriend, car—but by having a solid problem-solving process in place, moving through the content becomes a lot easier. We’re back to the difference between the what of our lives and the how, and the how is what counts. As the parent, you want to help your son master fractions, but even more, you want him to learn how to not become overwhelmed and discouraged by teaching him how to approach and manage the problems in his life, whatever they may be. And a lot of us adults have the same struggles.
Here’s a simple roadmap for solving everyday problems along with the places it’s easy to get stuck. We’re talking mundane stuff here. We’re not talking about sorting how the next equation for string theory, or how best to arrange your living room furniture—sure that’s partly about problem solving but more about intuition and innate creativity. And even though we’re focusing on the everyday, that doesn’t mean that they can’t feel overwhelming or that they are not difficult or complex. But that said, the basic problem-solving approach doesn’t change. Here goes:
1. Define the problem as concretely / specifically as possible. This is about narrowing your—what is it that needs to get fixed? This creates problem partialization—taking big junks of overwhelming misery and breaking them down into smaller, more manageable bites. It also makes it easier to do the next two steps.
The Trap: Too vague and general. “Can’t do factions math” is not a solvable problem. Neither is your “car seems to be breaking down,” your boyfriend is “upset,” or that you were “curt.” Ditto for being lonely, unfulfilled, unhappy, life sucks, or the couples I see who say they can’t communicate. Yes, you may feel that way, but that is the summary statement to a more specific concrete problem. You need to drill down. Be specific. At what point does the trail of fraction concepts for your son break down? Why this problem and not the one before? Rumbly sound—where does it change when you speed up, etc.? Curt—tell me what thought I did or sounded like that gave you that impression. Can’t communicate—you’re talking so you can communicate. Tell me what is exactly happening when you feel like you are not.
The other trap is that your overwhelming feelings have ramped up so far—your son is on the verge of tears—that it makes the drilling down and defining difficult to start. The problem is no longer the factions but anxiety that needs to be fixed. So you hug him or suggest he take a break and go play outside for awhile, or as an adult you do deep breathing, meditation, exercise, drink chamomile tea, or vent to a friend. Once you’re back under your threshold, you move forward.
2. Decide what you can do. As the parent, you can walk through the problem with your child or if it is over your head, you can hire a tutor or call the teacher. As the child, you ask the teacher or the smartest kid in the class for help. The car—if you have mechanic skills, you can check it out yourself. If not, take it to a garage. If you don’t have money to fix it, take the bus ’till you can save up the money or see if your dad can lend you the money. Talk to your boyfriend. Apologize for unintentionally hurting his and his mother’s feelings. Offer to talk to her. Find out what specifically bothered him so much. If, as a couple, you feel you don’t communicate, be proactive and initiate conversations about where you both get stuck in conversations and see where they lead.
You get the idea.
The Trap: Rather than focusing on what can and cannot do, you instead, particularly in relationship problems, tie your solution to what you want someone else to do. Rather than having that conversation with your boyfriend you obsess about his need to simply grow up and not be so sensitive and critical. Rather sitting down with your son and walking step-by-step through the math problems, you get mentally hung up on wishing he would try harder and not just whine.
Hitching your problem-solving wagon to someone else changing is a convoluted path to a solution. Sure, you can snap back at your boyfriend for his immaturity or your son about his whining, but it distracts both of you from solving the immediate problem and often only creates another problem. Keep it simple. Your problem, embrace it.
The other trap is that rather than deciding what you can do, you decide to do nothing, to push the problem to the back burner, hope it will go away somehow, miraculously get better. Sometimes deliberately deciding to wait-and-see has merits, especially if you and/or the other is stressed—this is about lowering the anxiety first. Circle back to the fractions tomorrow, realize that you or your boyfriend are under a lot of stress at work and a heavy conversation right now will only make matters worse, and the car noise hasn’t gotten worse and you have too much on your plate to this week to tackle it. This is rationaldecision-making. But simply pushing it way way back is about denial and magical thinkingand emotional rather than rational mind. Don’t do this.
3. Take action. Once you’ve zeroed in on the problem, consider action steps. It’s time to take action. Do something! Acting and moving forward will help lower your anxiety and help stop it from staring you in the face or perpetually circling around your brain as chronic worry. So get an estimate for the car repair, talk to the teacher, find a YouTube video on fractions, write a note to your boyfriend. The action empowers you.
The Trap: The big trap here is thinking that you think you need to find the right solution that guarantees success before you can act. Unless you do—you believe—you’ll wind up making a big mistake. This is the Ready, Aim, Fire approach to problems where you spend a lot of time sitting on the couch or endless hours on the Internet doing research, or forever talking to friends trying to figure out the perfect course before doing anything.
The other more practical approach is based on Ready, Fire, Aim. Do something and then see what happens next, and adjust. This is how a lot of big problems are eventually solved—think Edison and his trying out 1,000 of filaments for his light bulb before finding the best one—the trial and error, the creating the feedback loop that helps you discover what does and doesn’t work.
So you try the conversation or leave the note with your boyfriend and see what happens next. You call the teacher, or walk through the factions with your son and see if he can with your support connect the dots. You look for a hole in the exhaust system, get a second estimate on the car while also approaching your dad for a loan and looking up bus routes. Whatever you do, don’t endlessly mull, brood, and obsess. Perfectionism gets in the way of problem-solving because it can freeze decisive action needed to break through to a solution.
That’s it. All this moving through is a matter of practice and attitude, sometimes support, and like most things, it gets easier with repetition. So give this a try.
You can’t make a mistake.
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