Sharpen your problem solving skills

Problem solving is a skill set that can lead to resolving issues and differences without anger and frustration.

Sometimes anger and frustration are the result of very real problems in our lives. Anger can be a healthy, natural response to them. However, anger does not solve problems and our emotional responses can make our behavior part of the problem and not part of the solution. When problems go unresolved, they can make anger and frustration worse. When problems are solved effectively, everyone wins. Having the ability to solve problems is an important skill and there are many frameworks and approaches. In Michigan State University Extension’s, RELAX: Alternatives to Anger program (2013) problem solving is presented as a five-step process that begins with identifying the problem. Here is a breakdown the entire framework:

 Problem solving involves:

  1. Identifying the problem
  2. Keeping your cool
  3. Not taking it personally
  4. Listening      
  5. Coming up with solutions

Five Steps for Problem Solving

  • Step 1:  Identify the problem—acknowledge the problem, but do not dwell on it. Remember, what you focus on expands and feeding negativity may block solutions. Shift your focus to what the “answer” could be and away from “what went wrong?" or “whose fault it is.”
  • Step 2: Keep your cool—Remember, emotions trump logic and when we check in with anger, an intense emotion, the logical part of our brains checks out. This is not a good scenario for solving problems, but for making problems worse.
  • Step 3: Don’t take it personally— just like you and I have bad days, so does everyone else. You can only control what you say and your reactions to situations. You will never have control over anyone else. Tell yourself, “It’s not about me!” Repeat this as many times as needed to get it to sink in.
  • Step 4: Listen to the person who is angry—Listen for the “feelings” behind the words. Anger often masks sadness and fear. Do twice as much listening as talking to really “hear” what others are trying to say to you.
  • Step 5:  Think of solutions together—talk about or write down possible options that might work for everyone involved. If the first solution you try doesn’t work, don’t give up. Keep looking for an option that might work. Remember, you can only work together when you are calm.

The ability to communicate effectively is also going to be necessary to resolve problems and differences. While the words that come out of our mouths matter, they only account for 10 percent of what we are trying to communicate to others.  Our tone of voice accounts for another 30 percent of communication and body language is the largest component at 60 percent. So, the old adage that it’s not what you say, but how you say it, is truer than many may realize. Here is a rundown of other reasons why communication is not always effective, starting with reasons why people don’t listen:

 Reasons why people don’t listen: 

  • The other person is yelling.
  • There’s a power struggle that makes winning more important than cooperating.
  • People wait for the loudness level that lets them know the shouter is serious.
  • Changing the level of your voice to something quieter takes practice.
  • The person listening can’t understand the request—for whatever reason.
  • The listener doesn’t have the same priorities as the yeller.

Reasons why children don’t listen:

  • Adults don’t get down to the child’s level and/or make eye contact.
  • Parents tend to raise their voices instead of following through with consequences. Children become conditioned only to respond when the parent’s voice is high.
  • Children do not usually do not have good impulse control. This needs to be taught, modeled and practiced.
  • Nagging, yelling and lecturing rarely get the hoped for response.
  • The child is not developmentally or intellectually capable of understanding what the parent wants.
  • A child’s wants and needs don’t always coincide with a parent’s wants and needs.

When confronted with the aforementioned barriers, consider these steps for effective listening:

 Ten Steps for Effective Listening

  1. Face the speaker and maintain eye contact.
  2. Be attentive, yet relaxed.
  3. Keep an open mind.
  4. Listen to the words and try to picture what the speaker is saying.
  5. Don’t interrupt or impose your solutions.
  6. Wait for the speaker to pause to ask clarifying questions.
  7. Ask questions only to ensure your understanding of something that has been said. Avoid questions that disrupt the speaker’s train of thought.
  8. Try to feel what the speaker is feeling.
  9. Give the speaker regular feedback (for example, summarize, reflect feelings or simply say “uh-huh”).
  10. Pay attention to what isn’t being said—to feelings, facial expressions, gestures, posture and nonverbal cues.

Having a problem solving framework and knowing how to apply it can help with curbing emotional responses to problems and issues. Effective communication skills are also going to be important in understanding how to let others know what you’re thinking and feeling in the process of problem solving and finding mutual ground. If you would like to learn more about RELAX: Alternatives to Anger or other strategies for dealing with anger and strong emotions, please contact Lisa Tams as 734-716-2185 or visit the MSU Extension website

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