Problem-Solving Therapy: The Scientific Method of Making Decisions

· April 27, 2017

Oh, those problems! They are around our entire life causing us headaches, from the ones that we had in school trying to learn mathematics to the ones that we find in our daily lives now as adults. The good thing is that before facing the former group, we had teachers who taught us the way to go about solving them.

But what can we do to face the ones in our real life? These lack established formulas that always give us a concrete result, don’t they? But we must not lose hope! Even if there is no precise method that tells us that if we do one thing, it is going to have a determined consequence, we can guide ourselves using problem-solving techniques, which will help us make the best decision.

“I am not a product of my circumstances, I am a product of my decisions”

-Steven Covey-

What is problem-solving therapy?

Conflicts are part of life and we all suffer from them. Being human beings, we are naturally problem solvers, although some of us are better with this “natural gift” than others. What does this suggest to us? That it is a skill that can be developed. This is why D’Zurilla and Golfried proposed the idea of problem-solving therapy in 1971.

This technique makes it easier for us to identify problems, identify distinct alternative solutions, and select the response that is going to be the most efficient from among the proposals we put forth. In this way, we will have one more tool at our disposal to control the negative emotions that can arise from different obstacles.

Woman Looking Through Window Thinking

This is why we must follow a method made up of five phases, which I will explain in detail below. It is a long process, but it is worth every minute if you put it to use for significantly problematic situations. The steps to follow are:

  • Orientation towards the problem.
  • Definition and formulation of the problem.
  • Creation of alternative solutions.
  • Decision-making.
  • Execution and verification.

Phase 1: orientation towards the problem

The first step that must be taken before trying to solve a problem is to adopt a positive attitude towards the conflict and towards the abilities we have in order to face it successfully. We must promote beliefs of self-efficiency, assuming that we can manage to solve the problem at hand and identifying the burdens that we are getting rid of, like insecurity in ourselves.

On the other hand, it is important to change the vision we have about the problem. Instead of thinking negatively about it, which is going to make it harder for us to find a solution, we have to look at it as a challenge that is going to help us grow personally, leading to the improvement of our abilities.


“People in good moods are better at inductive reasoning and creative problem solving”

-Peter Salovey-

In addition to all of this, we have to be able to stop and think before acting so that we can complete this first phase of the process. This is because if we active in an impulsive way, we will make mistakes when we try to solve the problem.

Phase 2: definition and formulation of the problem

Once we have accepted that there are problems and that we can find proper solutions for them, we will move on to the next phase. In this one, we will try to properly define and formulate the conflict. This is very important because once we have concretely understood what the challenge is, we will have gone a long way towards solving it.

So it is a good idea to start gathering relevant information, describing it in the proper, specific, and relevant terms. It is very important for us to have a foundation of objective facts.

It is also necessary to identify why that situation that has come up is a conflict. Furthermore, we must reevaluate the meaning of this conflict for our personal and social well being. Finally, we have to be aware that not every problem can be solved. We have to establish a realistic solution goal. We can even break down a problem that is more complex into different “sub-problems” whose solution may be easier to find.

Phase 3: creation of alternative solutions

When we have managed to implement the two previous steps and we know what the exact problem is that we are facing, it comes time to create as many alternative solutions as possible. This is going to be difficult for us, but we have to take some time and work on it.

The more alternative solutions we produce, the more ideas we will have at our disposal, and we will have more chances to find the best response to our conflict. It is important to remember that in this phase, we do not evaluate the quality of the solutions, because this will inhibit our imagination, which is why we will start evaluating in the next step.

Many Doors

Phase 4: Decision-making

Now the time has come to compare and judge the different alternatives that we have created in the previous stage. Based on the evaluation that we make, we will select the best solution or solutions.

How are we going to do this? Well, for each proposed solution, we will indicate the costs and benefits in the short and long term in order to select the solution or set of solutions that we believe will help us achieve the desired results. For this, we will act based on four criteria:

  • Resolution of the problem: chance of achieving a solution.
  • Emotional well being: quality of the desired emotional result.
  • Time/effort: the calculation of the quantity of time and effort that we believe we will need.
  • Combined personal and social well being: total desired result in terms of cost/benefit.

With the results that we obtain, we have to see if the problem can be resolved, if we need more information before we can implement one of my alternatives, and which I should choose. If this weren’t the case, we would have to go back to the previous phases of the process in order to successfully find a satisfactory solution.

Phase 5: Execution and verification

Once we have chosen the right solution, what is left to do? Put it into practice! This is the only way that we will know if this is the right solution to overcome the problematic situation. Once we execute it, we have to watch ourselves in an objective way and compare the result obtained with the one we have predicted. If we find that this is not the desired one, we have to find the origin for this discrepancy in order to correct it.

“Action is the foundational key to all success”

-Pablo Picasso-

Finally, when we resolve a complicated problem, we tend to forget to do something very important: reward ourselves. There are people who go through their lives jumping from one worry to another and when they don’t have any, they anticipate the next one. Doing this is doubtlessly one of the best ways to end up buried in a hole of stress.

Smiling Woman with Sunflower

The important part of all of this is in that we have to stop ruminating over the problem, looking for solutions but without putting any into practice, which is going to lead to our experiencing a higher level of discomfort or even ending up suffering from an anxiety disorder or depression.

We have to take risks and make a decision, take a step forward. It’s no big deal if we mess up! Who is perfect? No one! This is why it is better to make a wrong decision than to keep thinking and thinking without doing anything. Now that you know how, it is time for you to find the solution to the challenges that present themselves to you.

Images courtesy of Ryan McGuire.