My mom just arrived for a visit. She is one of the best problem solvers I know. If something is broken, my mom can fix it! She is not only very talented at “tinkering” with things, she is also smart about asking for help and knowing where to find answers. On top of that, she is a very caring person who often helps those around her when they have a problem to be solved.
Thankfully, I think I have inherited her tendency to be resourceful and I get a lot of satisfaction from solving a problem – mine or someone else’s. Back in the days of manual checkbook balancing, I recall searching for the elusive 11 cents that was preventing me from reconciling the account, and the great feeling that came from figuring it out! I think this is why I love creating websites so much: 1) there is immediate gratification from discovering the “key” to making something work the way I want it to and 2) creating a website solves a client’s problem of needing a professional platform to showcase their business. It is rewarding to find solutions, overcome an obstacle and move on.
The dictionary defines “problem” as “a matter or situation regarded as unwelcome or harmful and needing to be dealt with and overcome.” We face problems of all kinds every day: crossword puzzles, traffic, things that are broken, relationships that are strained, health issues, and how we handle disappointments and conflict.
There are four basic steps to problem solving. Most of us, with most problems, don’t methodically think about these steps as we go through them, but unconsciously, this is what our mind should do with problems:
- Define the Problem
- Consider Possible Solutions
- Evaluate and Select an Solution
- Implement and Follow Up on the Solution
Sometimes a problem HAS to be solved quickly, one way or another. In a recent snow and ice storm, I had to drive home in treacherous conditions. At one point, cars were slipping this way and that going up a hill. With my foot pressed on the gas, my car was barely moving and I had no control. I didn’t make note of my mental process at the time, but I am sure I followed these steps:
1. Defined the Problem: The roads were dangerous and my car was stuck. While I was terrified, my mind was thinking through possible outcomes
2. Considered Possible Solutions: I could abandon the car and walk somewhere, but this seemed unlikely as there were cars all around and I couldn’t leave the car in the middle of the road! I could continue pressing on the gas. I could get out and ask for a push.
3. Selected Solution: I watched the cars ahead of me, and saw that after they inched their way through the icy patch, they eventually gained traction and moved on.
4. Implemented Chosen Solution: I followed suit (with a fair amount of screaming, crying and panic) and thankfully I made it out of the bottleneck.
Some problems do not need to be solved so quickly “in the moment” and may not be easily solved. You might need to try several possible solutions before you eventually find one that works, or it may seem that a solution will never be found, and when you least expect it, the perfect answer presents itself. Part of problem solving is monitoring progress as you work towards a solution. If you are not making good progress toward reaching your goal, you need to reevaluate your approach or look for new strategies.
While I want to believe no problem is unsolvable, certainly many problems are left unsolved. It can be more trouble than it’s worth to find a solution sometimes (I now just make a balance adjustment for 11 cents rather than look for the source for the source of the imbalance … I don’t have time to figure it out among the many automatic transactions in my bank account these days!)
Sometimes people don’t want a solution to their problem – they are not ready to deal with a solution, or don’t have the energy or motivation to find one. Sometimes, we may think if we ignore a problem, it will go away on its own (and sometimes it does).
The “solution” for some people may just be having someone to listen to them talk about their problem. In this case, is it better to try to help solve the problem or just listen? The temptation is to want to continually offer solutions to help a friend solve their problem (it is hard for me to just listen, but I am trying to be better about that!). Especially as a parent of teenagers on the verge of adulthood, I have to restrain myself from stepping in and “solving” their problems, and instead am learning to let them work out their problems, successfully or not, by themselves.
What role does faith play in solving problems? We are told, “put your problem in God’s hands.” The famous country song “God Bless the Broken Road” also refers to the idea that solutions are not always what we thought they would be. This is a hard message for someone like me who likes to be in control of my life, or to think I can be. To marry the two philosophies, I believe being open to ideas and plans we may not have chosen is important in being able to creatively solve problems, while not ignoring problems in the process in the hopes that God or fate will automatically solve them for us. Don’t just stand there and wait for your problem to solve itself, but don’t force a solution or give up if your problem isn’t solved when and how you think it should be. I believe that having faith that a difficult problem will be solved is important in giving us the confidence to work through it. A positive attitude has shown to help people through health crises and other hard times.
Life is full of “problems” … obstacles and choices we make every day. “Solutions” may not always be what we thought they would be, but I believe that looking for solutions (even if that means just listening) and being resourceful and open to ideas is the best way to deal with life’s problems and to embrace them as opportunities.