How did your parent or parents find solutions to problems in your family as you grew up? When they disagreed or had an important decision to make, what happened?
Maybe you remember one parent always getting his or her way, or parents arguing until one gave up or one went silent or left the scene. In these cases, you may have learned to fear disagreements and find it challenging to work cooperatively to solve problems.
When problems come up, many people see the other person as “the problem” and expect him or her to change in order to solve the problem. “If you just did X, we wouldn’t have a problem.” Then of course the other says, “Well, if you didn’t do Y, I wouldn’t do X. It’s actually your fault.” The cycle of blame begins. When we focus on the other, rather than the problem situation, as the problem, it is easy to get trapped in who or what is wrong, and blame each other, rather than work together to find a solution.
No wonder when we hear someone say, “We have a problem. We need to talk,” we tend to think, “Uh-oh” rather than, “Great, I love to solve problems.” However, solving problems together is an important life skill, and we owe it to ourselves and to our children learn how to do it. What better place for them to learn that skill than from us? You’ll need to step outside the cycle of blame, focus on the situation rather than blaming each other, and change the emphasis from “what’s wrong” to “what’s missing?”
How do we begin? First, by defining the problem to be outside, separate from ourselves. An example might be, “We need to find a better way to deal with the laundry” (a situation) rather than, “You never help with the laundry” (which makes your partner the problem).
Another important piece of the fearless problem-solving process is for each person to say what each wants in regard to the situation, rather than what’s wrong about it. For some of us, saying what we want is more unfamiliar and challenging than to say what’s wrong. However, an essential part of defining the problem is listening to and exploring what each wants and how close or far apart the wants are.
Here are the steps in a process many parents have found useful:
- Define your problem: “I miss spending time alone together.” Be objective and neutral. It might not appear as a problem to another.
- Invite the other’s participation: “When can we work on this? Is this a good time?” If not, set a time to talk.
- Tell the person what you want, just for yourself: “I would like to find a way to spend some special time together, get a babysitter, go out.”
- Get the other person’s view, what he or she wants. “What do you want, just for yourself?” This establishes that everyone has different points of view to respect.
- Brainstorm solutions: “What can we do? What’s possible?” Get as creative as possible, with all kinds of ideas. It’s important not to evaluate or pass judgment on the ideas right now.
- Find a common solution you can agree to: “What’s a win/win?” This is usually some version of taking turns, finding a compromise or coming up with a totally new idea you are willing to try. Play around with different versions, or bits and pieces of the brainstormed ideas, to find a common solution.
- Set a specific future time to evaluate the solution: “This is a trial run.” If your first solution isn’t satisfactory, go back to the brainstormed list and work toward another solution.
Sometimes when couples (or families) problem solve, they can feel angry, sad or afraid. Acknowledging such feelings in yourself and in each other is an important part of the problem-solving process.
Children as young as four can learn a simple version of this technique to use with siblings, friends and family. If your child is younger and not ready yet to actively participate, you can still model it so they become familiar with the steps in this essential life skill. Imagine their satisfaction in suggesting ideas, being taken seriously and making a positive contribution to the family.
Imagine using a clear, respectful method for working together as a family to find solutions to problems. Imagine using a method that results in understanding and collaboration among family members. No blame games, no fighting. Imagine that!
Juvata Rusch, MA, MS, is a long-time Parenting Now! staff member who co-authored several curricula. She is a licensed marriage and family therapist in private practice. Parenting Now! is a nonprofit organization dedicated to strengthening families through parent support and education. Explore this site; call 541-484-5316; or visit us on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest and Instagram. Family Info Line is also available; call 211, extension 5, or send an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org