Problem Solving #2: Defining the Problem

by Tony Schirtzinger, LCSW,

All personal and interpersonal problems can be solved. When we don't solve a problem, it's often because we haven't identified it clearly

Arguments About "Everything"

Some people disagree for hours (or days!) without even knowing what they disagree about. They argue so often that they always know there's going to be another one coming soon. They are continually saving up ammunition for the next one. Their goal, once the argument begins, is to bombard the other person with everything in their arsenal. (And, by the way, they usually subconsciously "pace themselves" - to save the biggest blasts for the end.) This is NOT problem solving. This is war! The goal isn't to fix anything, it's to wound! These people need to get over their desire for revenge and sadistic release before they can even hope to solve the other real problems they have between them. In real problem solving both people need to agree on which problem they are talking about!

Arguments That "Go Nowhere"

Have you ever discussed a problem for hours and realized at the end that it was a complete waste of time? If so, you were probably circling the problem rather than facing it directly. We "circle" by being too general when we define the problem.

Some Examples:
Statements a couple might make as they try to identify the problem they want to solve:

"The problem is that we don't communicate."
"The problem is that we don't communicate well enough."
"The problem is that we don't communicate well enough about the kids."
"The problem is that we don't communicate well enough about Michael."
"The problem is that we don't communicate well enough about Michael's school work."
"The problem is Michael's school work."
"The problem is that Michael won't do his school work."
And finally...
"The problem is that Michael won't do his math homework on a night when his favorite TV show is on and he gives in when Charlie pressures him to watch it with him."

Each statement is CLOSER to being a clear statement of the problem, but only the last statement comes close to being well-defined and ready to for problem-solving. In the last statement Michael's "giving in" is WHAT happens and "after Charlie pressures him" is WHEN it happens...

The Power Of The Moment

A problem is well-defined and ready for problem solving when we know precisely WHAT happens and WHEN it happens. "What Happens When" is called the MOMENT of the problem.

Finding The Moment

Some of my clients groan when I ask them for the hundredth time: "Could a video camera see and hear what you are talking about right now?" If the answer is "No," then all we are doing is venting or complaining. And although venting and complaining can be good for you, doing this for more than a few minutes amounts to "dumping" on the other person and it actually builds anger instead of dissipating it. If the answer is "Yes," then it's time to start real problem solving by answering the following questions.

Questions About The Moment

  1. What Always Happens Just BEFORE The Moment?
    The moment is "triggered" by certain events or feelings which just happened. A person who says or does something hurtful is actually trying to solve some previous problem which they are not openly discussing.
  2. WHO DOES WHAT During The Moment?
    This is what the video camera picks up: the words and body movements (actions) of each person.
  3. What MEANING Does Each Person Put To These Events?
    Many problems are solved just by learning that the meaning we give to these events is totally wrong! Discussing what each person intended, and what each person actually meant, can be extremely helpful.
  4. What Does Each Person FEEL As A Result?
    What each person feels will be a reflection of what they think they've just gained or lost.   This may be quite different than what they really gained or lost!
  5. What Is The RESULT or OUTCOME?
    Strangely, these "problem moments" are reenacted regularly in our relationships even though they almost never work to either party's benefit! If change is going to happen, everyone needs to notice the huge difference between what they hope for and the actual result.
  6. What Can Each Person EASILY AND HAPPILY DO DIFFERENTLY When This Moment Comes Again?
    The problem is solved when one or both people find something they are happy to change - and then they actually change it the next time the "moment" comes along.

Other articles by Tony Schirtzinger, LCSW:

Tony Schirtzinger LCSW Basics 1: Your Needs And Wants
Basics 2: Your Natural Feelings
Basics 3: Your Unnatural Feelings

Problem Solving 1: Roadblocks
Problem Solving 2: Defining The Problem
Problem Solving 3: Six Aspects Of A Problem

Tony Schirtzinger, LCSW, is a psychotherapist and a trainer of therapists and counselors. He has over 35 years experience working with depression, anxiety, adults who suffered abuse in childhood, delinquency and criminality, parenting, teenagers, and dissociation. He offers email advice and telephone counseling, as well as in-person appointments in Milwaukee, WI. More of his articles can be found at