Problem Solving #3:The Six Aspects Of A Problem

by Tony Schirtzinger, LCSW,

All personal and interpersonal problems can be solved. We've looked at the roadblocks and how to identify a problem. Now we'll learn about the six aspects of all problems.

The Six Aspects Of A Problem

Ignoring these aspects makes problem solving impossible! So why do we often try to ignore them? We ignore aspects of our problems in a futile attempt to avoid conflict, avoid losing, or avoid hurting someone. But these feared outcomes are only delayed and made worse by trying to avoid them.

The EXISTENCE of the Problem: "Does The Problem Really EXIST?"

When we pretend a problem isn't even there, we say things like:

"It's no problem."
"There's nothing wrong."
"There's nothing to talk about."
"It's all in your head."
"You're just imagining it!"

How Do We Know A Problem Does Exist?
A problem exists when someone feels bad about something that can be changed. If your partner says "I have a problem with the way you do dishes," there IS a problem to be worked on. Saying "there's nothing wrong with how I do dishes" only asks your partner to hide their feelings from you. If they stop talking about the problem, it "goes underground" and may get added to a pile of other resentments. It does not go away.

How To Handle People Who Say A Problem Isn't There:
Tell them: "It IS a problem, because what I feel matters!" [The person you need to say this to may be you!]

The SIGNIFICANCE of the Problem: "How IMPORTANT Is The Problem?"

When we pretend a problem isn't significant we say things like:

"It's not important."
"It's no biggy."
"It doesn't matter."
"It doesn't matter much."

How Do We Know How Important A Problem Is?
We know how important a problem is by the AMOUNT of discomfort we feel in our bodies. Each person needs to notice how they feel and decide for themselves how important a problem is. If your partner says "I have a problem with the way you do dishes" the problem is significant already - just because it bothered them enough to tell you about it. Saying "It doesn't matter" tells them that their feelings don't matter to you. (Then you have a much bigger problem on your hands!)

How To Handle People Who Say A Problem Isn't Important?
Tell them: "I know how strongly I feel about this and I know it IS important!" [The person you need to say this to may be you!]

The SOLVABILITY of the Problem: "Can the Problem Be SOLVED?"

When we pretend a problem can't be solved, we say things like:

"Nothing can be done about it."
"It's hopeless."
"It can't be fixed."
"That's just the way I am."

How Do We Know If A Problem Is Solvable or Not?
ALL problems are solvable, unless they require us to do something that is physically impossible. "We should get along better" is solvable. "We should learn to fly without wings" is unsolvable!

When we claim we can't change, we are really saying we won't change.
Of course, we certainly don't have to change anything that we don't want to change. But we need to take responsibility for saying "No" - to keep communication clear, and so we don't end up in ongoing and unnecessary arguments. We just need to firmly say something like: "I know you don't like the way I do dishes, but I'm the one doing them and I'm going to do them this way."

If your partner OFTEN says they "can't" do things you want them to do, the problem may be that you keep wanting them to do things your way rather than their own way. This is "controlling" behavior on your part. If you wonder if you might be "controlling," go back to your own feelings - the sensations in your body. And ask yourself: "Are my bad feelings about what I said they were about ("the dishes"), or do I feel angry and scared just because I 'm not controlling what's going on?"

How To Handle People Who Say A Problem Isn't Solvable?
Tell them: "There's nothing impossible about it and you know it. We can do things differently." [The person you need to say this to may be you!]

The Part I Play In The Problem

When we pretend we don't have any responsibility for a problem, we say things like:

"It's not my problem!"
"I didn't do anything wrong."
"It's all your fault."
"You'll have to fix it!"

How do we know that we ARE part of the problem?
We always play a part in any problem that exists between us and other people. But it's important to realize that we don't have to do anything to be a big part of a problem! If your partner says "I have a problem with the way you do dishes" you might say "It's not my problem. It's your problem that you want me to do them differently." But saying that you don't have a part in the problem, doesn't make it so!

In this example, the part you play in this problem might be:
- That you drop every third dish(!).
- That you say you'll do them but don't.
- That you refuse to discuss the dishes at all.
If you drop every third dish, you probably admit that you are at least part of the problem! But if you don't keep your word about when you'll do them or if you simply refuse to discuss the dishes, then your part of the problem is a passive part. Your part of the problem isn't about what you do, but about what you do not do.

When little kids get blamed for something, they love to respond with: "But I didn't DO anything!!" Many adults live their lives as if this is their only defense: To be able to say "I didn't DO anything!" Many problems have both an active and a passive participant. The active person is at least putting their beliefs "out there" to be seen. The passive person is staying hidden, and their role may be overlooked. The worst example of passivity in problem solving is in abusive relationships. The person who is being abused keeps saying "I didn't DO anything!" but they did do something very, very important! They took the abuse, passively, even after they knew it was going to happen again. Their passivity is an extremely important part of the problem!

How to handle it when you want to deny that you are part of the problem:
Tell yourself: "I am part of this problem. Something I did or didn't do contributes to it!"

The Part The Other Person Plays In The Problem

When we pretend the other person doesn't have any responsibility in a problem, we say things like:

"It's not your problem."
"You didn't do anything wrong."
"It's all my fault."
"I'll ix it by myself."

How do we know the other person is a part of the problem?
See "How we know we are part of the problem" (above)... Just reverse the pronouns...

How to handle it when you want to deny that the other person is part of the problem:
This can be pretty serious stuff. It may be based on self-hate, intense fearfulness, or both. Tell yourself: "The other person is responsible for what they do or don't do. It is not all my fault or entirely my responsibility to fix this." (If necessary, add: "I will not take being mistreated!"...)

The Role Of The Situation

Sometimes the situation really doesn't matter. If the "situation" in our example is only "the kitchen," there isn't much we need to say about it. But what if one partner's parents are taking a side in the dispute? What if someone's religious beliefs are involved? What if someone believes that the only way to do dishes is the way they think "everyone" does them (and this is defined by what they've seen on TV)?

How much does the situation matter?
Each person determines the amount that these elements influence their decisions. What matters is whether we take responsibility for making our own decisions or we blame outside factors for making us do what we choose to do. Saying you "have to" do something the way your parents or your religion or your culture says, is a cop out. You make your own decisions, regardless of the amount of pressure around you. Saying you learned from your parents, religion, or culture - and you picked out the good stuff and threw away the bad from each source - is being responsible.

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