Why problem-solving is important
As parents, the way you manage problems or disagreements in your relationship affects your children.
By managing problems positively and constructively, you help your children develop well and thrive. When children see you behaving and communicating with your partner in this way, children learn to behave this way too. It can teach them important skills for life.
When you and your partner find solutions together, you help the whole family have happier, healthier and stronger relationships. And you help to protect your children from the downsides of conflict.
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.
Ground rules for problem-solving
Before you start problem-solving, it’s a good idea to set some ground rules. It’s also important for you and your partner to come up with these 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 soon to discuss it – no more than 1-2 days 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 actively 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 and your children.
- Keep in mind that if one of you has a problem, it’s likely to affect both of you.
Problem-solving: how to do it
Positive problem-solving has six basic steps:
- Define the problem.
- Clarify what you each want.
- Brainstorm solutions.
- Evaluate solutions and choose one.
- Try the solution.
- Review the solution.
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’ve noticed 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. You could try phrasing the issue as a question. For example, ‘I’m worried that we haven’t had time for each other lately. Can we talk about how we can spend some time together?’
2. Clarify what you each want
Be clear about what’s important to each of you. Asking questions can help you clarify things. 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.
3. Brainstorm solutions
Write down any and all possible solutions:
- 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
Narrow down your brainstorming list to one practical option that can solve your problem:
- 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 they’re OK with this. Your partner might prefer to keep some of your problems 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.
6. Review the solution
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 solution is working, you’ll both notice that the problem is going away. If it 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 natural to have some ups and downs along the way – set a realistic time frame to try the solution.
And remember to encourage and support each other as you try to solve the problem. For example, ‘I’m glad we’re trying to work on this together’ or ‘It helps when we talk things through. Thanks’.
Your goal is to do things differently and work on compromise. With patience, effort and support for each other, you can find a way to solve your relationship problems.
Getting help with problems in your relationship
If working 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 help you come up with practical solutions. You could try the following options:
- Call Relationships Australia in your state or territory on 1300 364 277.
- Call Family Relationships Online on 1800 050 321.
- See your GP to talk things through and get a referral to a psychologist or relationship or family counselling service.
- Find a psychologist or counselling service through the Australian Psychology Society, Australian Counselling Association or Psychotherapy and Counselling Federation of Australia.
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 by yourself.
Family violence is not OK. If you’re in a relationship that involves family violence, call the National Sexual Assault, Domestic Family Violence Counselling Service on 1800 RESPECT (1800 737 732).