Problem-solving is a way of finding new and creative solutions in situations where you’re stuck or can’t work through your issues.
Why problem-solving is important
As parents, the way you manage any problems or disagreements in your relationship affects your children.
By managing problems positively and constructively, you can protect your children from the downsides of conflict. When you and your partner find solutions together, you help the whole family have happier, healthier and stronger relationships.
This is because a problem-solving approach can help you and your partner to:
- confront issues, rather than avoiding them
- talk and listen respectfully and patiently
- find solutions that you’re both happy with
- feel like you’re working as a team.
This approach can also teach your children important skills for life.
Ground rules for problem-solving
Before you start problem-solving, it’s a good idea to set some ground rules. It’s also good for you and your partner to come up with the ground rules together.
Here are suggestions for problem-solving ground rules to get you started:
- Either person can raise a problem for discussion at any time.
- Either person can say ‘no’ if they don’t want to talk about it right then, but agree to make another time to discuss it – no more than a day after it first comes up.
- If the discussion gets heated, either person can call for a ‘break’ to calm down.
- Raise problems at a good time and place. For example, do it when the children aren’t around, when there’s enough time to discuss the issue, when there are no other competing demands like making dinner, and when you’re both calm.
- Try to listen so you both understand what the other person is saying.
- Agree that you won’t raise conflict topics or show disrespect in front of other people.
- Keep in mind that if one of you has a problem, you both have a problem.
Problem-solving: how to do it
1. Define the problem
Be clear and specific about the problem:
- Describe what’s happening, how often it’s happening, and who’s involved. For example, ‘In the past three weeks, I feel like we’ve argued a lot more than usual’.
- Focus on the issue, not the person. For example, ‘We’re always doing chores or taking the children to sport, and we haven’t been able to relax together. I think it’s affecting our relationship’.
- Acknowledge your role or contribution to the problem. For example, ‘I know I started a few of those arguments’.
- Describe the problem with a neutral, non-blaming approach. To do this, you could try phrasing the issue as a question. For example, ‘Can we talk about how we can make some time for our relationship?’
2. Clarify what you each want
Be clear about what’s important to each of you. Ask questions to clarify your positions. For example:
- Why is that so important?
- Why do you want/need that?
- Why are you concerned/worried/afraid about that?
- Why don’t you want/need that?
- What would be so awful about that?
Your goal is to have a clear understanding of what you both want. Be patient and focus on listening to each other’s answers.
Write down any and all possible solutions. Here are some tips to get you started on brainstorming:
- Take turns to suggest ideas.
- Try to get as many ideas as you can, even if some don’t seem relevant. Aim for at least 8-10 ideas.
- Include all ideas. Rejecting ideas can hurt each other’s feelings and stop you from sharing your ideas.
- Wait until you’ve got all your ideas down before you talk about them.
4. Evaluate solutions and choose one
Look at each solution on your brainstorming list, and narrow it down to one practical option that can solve your problem. Here are some tips that might help:
- Cross off ideas you both agree won’t work.
- If one of you thinks an idea might work, leave it on the list.
- List the advantages and disadvantages for each idea you have left on the list. Look at the advantages first – try to find something positive about every idea.
- Keep discussions brief so you have enough time to discuss all ideas left on the list.
- Cross off any ideas that clearly have more disadvantages than advantages.
- Rate the remaining options from 1 (not very good) to 10 (very good).
- Choose a solution that you and your partner agree to try – it might not be your preferred solution but it should be one that you’re comfortable with.
If you can’t find a solution, repeat the brainstorming step and try to come up with different ideas.
If you need some new ideas, you could ask trusted friends or family. But first check with your partner if he or she is OK with this. Your partner might prefer to keep some conflict issues private.
If this still doesn’t work, you could both agree to trying your choice of solution this time and your partner’s choice next time.
5. Try the solution
Make a commitment to the solution by agreeing on the following:
- Who will do what, when and where?
- What will happen if we don’t do the things we’ve agreed on?
- Do we need to keep track of how well our solution is working?
- When will we review how the solution is going?
If your solution is related to your children, consider getting them involved in trying the solution, if it’s appropriate.
After a set time, look at your solution and talk about how it’s going. You could ask questions like:
- Is the solution working?
- What has worked well? What hasn’t worked?
- What could we do to make things work more smoothly?
If the agreement works, you’ll both notice there’s less conflict. If there isn’t, ask yourselves these questions:
- Was the solution reasonable?
- Did we both give and take?
- Were rules and responsibilities clear to both of us?
- Were consequences for breaking the agreement used, and were they appropriate?
- Have other issues come up that we need to talk about before our solution will work?
You might find that you need to start the problem-solving process again to find a better solution.
It’s normal to have some ups and downs along the way – allow 1-2 weeks for things to work.
If trying to work on problems makes you or your partner very upset or angry, it might help to speak to a relationship counsellor. Relationship counsellors can help you identify what’s causing conflict between you and come up with practical solutions.
It’s good if you and your partner can see a counsellor together. But if your partner doesn’t want to go it’s still worth seeking help, even if it’s by yourself.