The problem with problems

The problem-focused approach or an approach to problem-solving which focuses on the problem tends to be the default for many people and organisations. This is done under the false belief that if you know what the problem is by extension you will be able to find a solution to that problem. This approach might be more adept at resolving problems in engineering or medical settings, but less so in more complex settings such as human interaction.

As a consequence alternative models of resolving problems have come forwards, one such approach is the solution-focused approach. As the name implies the Solution Focused approach focuses on solutions (that is, defining and acting on what is wanted and what is better). It’s an approach that doesn’t focus on the problem, or weaknesses, or what’s gone wrong, but rather on solutions, strengths, and what is going well. The Solution Focused approach, therefore, rejects the widespread assumption that focusing on the problem is the best way to solve them.

As a form of therapy, the Solution Focused approach goes very much against the conventional psychological wisdom, where “talking through the problem” is regarded as the precursor to change. This doesn’t make the Solution Focused approach “problem phobic”, but rather it places far less weight on exploring the problem. As an approach, it is far more interested in the times when the problem is not happening. One of Solution Focuses assumptions is that change is happening all the time and that the problem is not always present. It is therefore very interested in mining those instances of when the problem is not happening to discover what you were doing.

Because we are all unique and our day-to-day environment is also unique, a prescriptive approach of change by someone else can rarely succeed in the long term. By detailing the times when the problem isn’t present you begin to find your own individual ways to overcome the problem. Unfortunately, we are often unaware of these solutions and it is only through the discourse within coaching or therapist that you become more aware of what you did. The seeds of solutions are almost always present and solutions are born through your own unique resources, strengths, and skills. Because solutions are self-developed they can also be more easily interwoven into your life with little to no effort other than becoming more aware. The Solution Focused approach, therefore, fits you and your situation today, making it quick to implement and quick to elicit change. It seeks to change as little as possible, therefore avoiding much of the pain that forced change can bring, it tweaks rather than revolutionises.

The differences between Problem Focused and Solution Focused are more clearly highlighted in the table below:

Problem Focused Approach Solution Focused Approach

What’s wrong What’s wanted

What needs fixing What’s working Blame Progress

Control Influence

Causes in the past Past solutions

The expert know best You know best (with some collaboration)

Deficits and weaknesses Resources and strength

Complications Simplicity

Definitions Actions

As you can see from the table above the problem-focused and solution-focused approaches starkly contrast in many areas. Conventionally it has been assumed that learning about the problem helps with working towards a solution. Finding out about the problem makes us experts on the problem, but does not necessarily move you forwards towards positive change. In fact, focusing just on the problem can sometimes make the problem all-consuming and prevents you from ever seeing a solution. Problem talk seems natural, it seems logical for many to feel that by sharing a problem a solution will magically appear. The Solution Focused approach counters this desire to problem talk by asking some simple questions such as “If this problem disappeared what would be different?” or “If this problem disappeared what would be there in its place?”. By looking beyond the problem and looking at instances when the problem isn’t such a problem you begin to diminish the significance of the problem, you begin to see light at the end of the tunnel and that the problem isn’t so dominant. With a Solution Focused approach you begin to find your own power, take more responsibility, and develop a greater sense of control of your own future and if that is not enough isn't it just so much nicer to talk about solutions rather than problems?