Brief Problem-Solving Therapy (PST) Strategies

Problem-Solving Therapy (PST)

Brief Strategies for Practical Solutions

Copyright © Donald Robertson, 2011.  All rights reserved.

Problem-Orientation-DiagramProblem-Solving Therapy (PST) is an evidence-based methodology used to improve confidence and skill in relation to solving life’s problems, of whatever kind.  It was developed by behavioural psychologists in the early 1970s and has been refined over half a century and supported by a large body of scientific research showing it’s beneficial effects as a means of coping with stress and preventing anxiety and depression, with a wide variety of populations.

The worksheet below provides simplified instructions for PST, designed as a brief response to practical problems.  Each section is followed by a brief self-rating question to help you evaluate you’re use of the standard steps involved in problem-solving.  Self-rating each step in this way is designed to help you improve your problem-solving ability in general.  If you want further information, the leading experts on problem-solving, Nezu and D’Zurilla, have published a self-help book called Solving Life’s Problems, which you may find helpful.

The authors summarise the problem-solving methodology using the acronym “ADAPT”, to make it easier to memorise the steps: Adopt a positive attitude, Define the problem, Alternatives solutions are brainstormed, Prediction of their consequences, and Testing out of the best solution.  These steps are explained in more detail below…

1. Attitude: Adopt a Positive Problem-Solving Attitude

In order to solve difficult or challenging problems it’s obviously very important to adopt the right attitude from the outset and maintain it throughout the whole process.  A positive “problem-solving attitude” normally includes,

  1. Spotting problems early and recognising them accurately rather than overlooking or discounting them
  2. Accurately identifying the specific causes of a problem rather than blaming it on vague causes
  3. Seeing problems as challenges rather than threats, i.e., viewing them calmly rather than catastrophically
  4. Accurately identifying the aspects of a problem that are under your control and being confident about finding a solution
  5. Realistically judging the time and effort required and being willing to commit to action, without too much rushing or procrastinating

Rate your problem-solving attitude based on the criteria above from 0-100%.  What could you do to get that rating closer to 100%?  Do that and re-rate yourself before continuing.

2. Definition: Define the Problem and your Goal

“A problem well-defined is half solved”, said the famous philosopher John Dewey.  People often fail to solve problems simply because they define their problems too vaguely or inaccurately, or set vague or unrealistic goals, or fail to anticipate obstacles.  Being specific and realistic is the key.  If you’re familiar with the concept of SMART goals, use that method.  Follow the steps below,

  1. Describe your problem in a few sentences, trying to be as specific and objective as possible, avoiding any assumptions or using value judgement or emotional language
  2. Describe your (short-term) goal briefly, being as specific and realistic as possible, avoiding vague or idealistic outcomes – “What’s the best you can realistically hope to achieve?”
  3. List the obstacles, if any, you have to overcome to solve the problem and achieve your goal – “Why haven’t you already achieved it?”

Rate your problem definition, including your goal and list of obstacles, based on the guidance above from 0-100%?  How could you get that rating closer to 100%?  Do that and re-rate yourself before continuing.

3. Alternatives: Brainstorm Alternative Solutions

The more alternative solutions you can identify, the more likely you are to identify the best plan of action.  Also, there’s some reason to believe that people who think flexibly and creatively and are conscious of a variety of perspectives (different options) tend to experience less stress.  The three classic principles of effective brainstorming were defined by the psychologist A.F. Osborn as,

  1. Quantity – Try to generate as many possible solutions as you can possibly think of
  2. Variety – Try to be as creative as possible and discount no possible solution, no matter how unsatisfactory it may appear at first, because even seemingly poor ideas can contribute to the creative search for solutions by fuelling the process and triggering other, better ideas
  3. Suspension of Judgment – Keep listing options and don’t stop to evaluate them until you’ve completed your initial list, because analysis can cause digression

Don’t pause until you’ve made a “menu” of possible solutions that’s as exhaustive and creative as possible.  Remember that this process has hidden benefits, e.g., flexible thinking often protects against negative emotions like anxiety and depression.  When people “feel they have several options” they tend to cope better with stress.  If you’re struggling to come up with ideas, there are several creative perspective-shifting techniques and generic solution strategies you can use to generate more potential solutions.  For example…  What’s worked in the past?  What have you never tried?  What would other people do?  What would you do if you were more confident?  What would you advise other people to do?  What would an expert tell you to do?

Rate your list of possible solutions in terms of the quantity and variety of alternatives you’ve identified, from 0-100%.  How could you get that rating closer to 100%? Do that and re-rate yourself before continuing.

4. Predictions: Evaluate the Consequences of Different Solutions

It’s obviously important to pick the best solution, although there may seldom be a “perfect” solution to difficult or long-standing problems.  You will either have to choose between mutually exclusive options, from your list of solutions above, or think creatively about ways to combine several solutions together into a single, coherent plan of action.  Evaluating solutions can be a lengthy process, and where appropriate shortcuts are applied.  It’s common to do an initial rough screening of your proposed solutions and discard any that are obviously not going to work, as not being worth evaluating further.  (Although, if you have plenty of time and patience, it’s often worth evaluating all of the options.)  Once you have a shortlist of the best options, you should evaluate them in terms of the following criteria,

  1. How difficult would it be for you to put the solution into practice?
  2. If you did put the proposed solution into practice, how likely would it be to solve the problem and achieve your goal?  What would be the likely outcome?
  3. Based on these considerations, rate your overall satisfaction with the proposed solution, from 0-100% – or if you want to be quick, just give it a star-rating, from 1-3 stars.

If you have time, you might also consider the wider pros and cons (advantages and disadvantages) of each proposed solution, both short-term and long-term.  As you evaluate your initial list of proposed solutions, you may come up with new ideas, which you can add to the list and evaluate.  Finally, make a decision about the best overall solution or combination of solutions and prepare to formulate a plan of action.

Rate how satisfied you are that you’ve evaluated your list of proposed solutions in terms of their likely consequences and the difficulty of putting them into practice.  How could you get that rating closer to 100%? Do that and re-rate yourself before continuing.

5. Test it Out: Design an Action Plan and Put it into Practice

Now a plan that’s not put into action isn’t worth much.  One of the biggest mistakes you can make is to spend time planning the best solution but to fall at the last hurdle and fail to put it into practice.  Based on your evaluation of the proposed solutions above, write down a plan of action.  Use the following criteria to guide you,

  1. Be as specific as possible about the different steps required
  2. Be particularly clear about what the first step will be and when you’re going to do it
  3. Be clear about the final step needed to complete the plan  and how you will evaluate the outcome, i.e., how well it worked in terms of achieving your goal above
  4. Include a “Plan B” or contingency (backup) plan, if necessary – What will you actually do if your best solution doesn’t go according to plan?
  5. Specify how you will make sure you commit to action and definitely follow your plan (or backup plan) to completion
  6. Now do it!  Put your plan into action and evaluate the outcome

Rate how satisfied you are that you’ve made a plan and tested it out, following the guidelines above, from 0-100%.  How could you get that rating closer to 100%? Do that and re-rate yourself before continuing.

Finally, consider what you’ve learned from the outcome, and the whole process of problem-solving.  Praise and reward yourself, not for the results, but for the time and effort you invested, regardless of the outcome.  If your action plan didn’t solve the problem and achieve your goal this time, that’s okay, just go back to the drawing board and “recycle” things by going through the steps again, taking into account what you’ve learned from the outcome of your first attempt.


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