Problems and Solutions: not two sides of the same coin

One of the most amazing moments in my life was when I found out that a solution is not simply the absence of a problem. Prior to that I had assumed, as I think a lot of people do, that problems and solutions were like two sides of a coin; solutions were the opposite of problems. Sometimes, of course, this is true; if you have a leaking pipe then the solution is to mend it – to not have a leaking pipe, similarly, if the battery in your car is flat then the solution is to charge it up – to not have a flat battery. However, this zero sum approach to problem solving only really works with physical things; when it comes to human relations, it’s much less effective (I call it a zero sum approach because it follows the logic of “problem – problem = zero”).

Many times, especially when it comes to how we feel about ourselves or how we interact with others, problems and solutions are much less closely linked. Consider the situation of Alice and her teenage son, Frank. Alice is extremely worried about Frank’s behaviour since he turned 16. She thinks he has been experimenting with soft drugs and alcohol, and she knows that he has skipped school once or twice in the past three weeks. Whenever she tries to confront Frank with his behaviour he becomes verbally abusive and storms off to his room. According to the zero sum logic above, Alice either has to “get Frank fixed”, or get him out of her life. As Frank is unwilling to engage in any “fixing” exercise, and she is unwilling to throw her son out, there would appear to be no solution to Alice’s problem.

However, in Solution Focused Living we use a positive sum approach. We are interested in what Alice and Frank are doing when they’re not arguing and fighting, how has Frank managed to attend school for 13 days out of the past three weeks, what does Frank do when he isn’t experimenting with alcohol or drugs (and how does Alice interact with him then). At the bottom line is the question, “why is Alice unwilling to throw Frank out?” In other words, what are Frank’s good points, what are his strengths, what does he do well, and what are the strengths of Alice’s relationship with him? By exploring the things that work in their relationship, and by aiming to do more of them, we can increase the amount of time when there isn’t a problem (or at least when the problem is diminished) and, thereby, as an inevitable result decrease the amount of time and/or the severity of the problem experienced by Alice. It’s important to recognise that “the problem” doesn’t exist independently of Alice, I should really say, “the problem as perceived by Alice”, but we’ll save that for another day!

So; the solution isn’t the absence of the problem, instead it is a situation where the problem is, for whatever reason, less of a problem. This might mean that the problem is diminished, or it might mean that our ability to cope with it is enhanced, probably a bit of both; but it does mean that we’re not stuck in the impossibility of a zero sum solution. Each problem is unique, and each problem requires its own made-to-measure solution.

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