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5 Simple Problem-Solving Skills to Solve All Your Problems

In Education, Emotional Health, Mental Health, Self-Care, Social Health, Wellness by Courtney ArcherLeave a Comment

Every therapy approach has its own problem-solving skills, but they all boil down to the same things. In order to solve your problems, you need to first define them, second brainstorm, third pick a solution, fourth employ that solution, and fifth evaluate.

Each step becomes progressively more intensive, but each step has a simplicity to it that is easily done. You just need to know how to do them! That is why you are here, of course.

This article will walk you through problem-solving step by step so that you have a clear idea of what needs to be done and how to do it. These problem-skills are not so much about developing new skills as they are about applying what you already know in a more helpful manner.

After all, no one knows your problems like you do, and therefore no one knows how to solve your problems like you do. Sometimes we all just need a little help to take us from uncertainty to smooth-sailing.

Read on to learn how to make your life a little smoother by solving your problems one step at a time!

Photo of an outdoor staircase, a metaphorical representation of the problem-solving skills and steps you need to solve your problems.

The Only 5 Problem-Solving Skills You Need

How to Problem Solve Definition

First and foremost, these problem-solving skills will only work for solvable problems. This might seem obvious, but how many times have you agonized over solving something before you realized there was nothing to be done?

The secret first step to solving any problem is figuring out if it is something that can be solved. Think of this as Problem Solving Step 0.5, if you will.

You have probably heard the serenity prayer. Problem-solving is one of the best times to apply it.

“God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.”

If something is causing you distress and you cannot change it, it may be time to look for the meaning in the situation. Read this article about how to find meaning in your life to learn more about that.

However, if you can change things, then do so! The 5 problem-solving skills you need are below.

Phot of of step in nature, metaphorically representing helpful problem-solving skills and steps.

The 5 Steps to Solve All Your (Solve-able) Problems

Step 1 to Problem Solve: Define the Problem

Defining your problem is absolutely crucial to solving it, and the more specific you can be the better. While this problem-solving skill might seem obvious, its execution is less so.

For example, say your roommate always lets the dishes build up for days before doing them, making your kitchen smell and look terrible. What is the problem?

It could be that you do not think your roommate is pulling their fair share of the load. Or it could be that you hate the way the kitchen looks when it is messy. Or it could be that the dishes you need are never clean.

The problem determines the solution, and the more you can hone in on what the actual problem is, the better your solution will be.

Another part of defining the problem is defining your preferred outcome. What do you want to happen once the problem is solved?

For example, if you would like to stop sleeping in late every morning, why? What does not sleeping in late help you accomplish? Does it make it so you get breakfast, are on time to work, get things done on your to-do list? Why do you want to stop sleeping in late?

Goals are only as effective as the whys behind them. Everyone wants to succeed, to be happy, to do better tomorrow than they did today. But the people who actually reach their goals are the ones who know why they have those goals.

Questions to ask yourself in Step 1 of Problem-Solving:

  1. What is the specific problem I would like to solve?
  2. What is my preferred outcome?

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Step 2 to Problem Solve: Brainstorm Solutions

To be a successful brainstormer you pretty much just need to know one thing: there are no bad solutions. You will have plenty of time to pick your solutions apart in the next step of these problem-solving techniques. Here, we are purely just coming up with solutions.

The key to success is to literally write down every single solution that comes to mind. Not writing something down because it is ridiculous or stupid stops the flow of ideas, and brainstorming is all about keeping the ideas flowing.

Use your phone or a notebook to keep track of everything you can come up with, and do not stop until you have at least 15 solutions. 15?! Yes. Seriously, just write down everything.

For our problem of the messy roommate above, say we defined the problem as never having the dishes you need, and your preferred outcome being that your dishes are always clean.15 solutions could be:

  1. get a new roommate
  2. tell the roommate to do the dishes
  3. ask the roommate to do the dishes
  4. do the dishes myself
  5. hire someone else to do the dishes
  6. get rid of all the dishes and use disposable dishes
  7. hide the dishes until my roommate agrees to do them more often
  8. start using all my roommate’s favorite dishes and never wash them
  9. raise my roommate’s portion of the rent to cover for the labor I’m doing because I wash all the dishes
  10. ask my roommate if they will pay me to do the dishes for them
  11. talk to my roommate about what gets in the way of them doing the dishes and ask if there is anything I can do to help
  12. move to a different apartment
  13. ask my roommate not to use my favorite dishes
  14. get an extra set of my favorite dishes
  15. put all the dishes in my roommate’s bed so they’re out of the sink so I can at least wash my favorite dishes

Reading through those solutions, you will quickly see that some are vastly superior to others. Of course they are! The point here is not to come up with a great solution, it is to come up with as many solutions as you can and trust that one of them will be workable.

If you brainstorm 15 solutions and none of them fit the bill then keep brainstorming.

Questions to ask yourself in Step 2 of Problem-Solving:

  1. What are 15 possible solutions to my specific problem that will help me reach my preferred outcome?

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Step 3 to Problem Solve: Evaluate Solutions & Pick One

Once you have brainstormed at least 15 solutions, then comes the next step of your problem-solving strategies: evaluate your solutions and pick the best one.

You can probably cross off some of your solutions right off the bat (who has extra cash to pay someone to do their roommate’s dishes???). Some of them are going to seem halfway decent though, and you might even run into the issue of not knowing which decent one to go with.

That is why it is important to take the time to evaluate them. While this is not the most entertaining of all the problem-solving tools, it is instrumental in figuring out which direction to go.

When evaluating to find the best solution, the two things you want to check for are ease and effectiveness. Sometimes the most effective solution is the most difficult, and therefore not necessarily the best solution.

The best solution will be one that is within your means to accomplish and will move you toward your desired outcome.

Questions to ask yourself in Step 3 of Problem-Solving:

  1. How easy is this solution and what makes it easy?
  2. How effective is this solution and what makes it effective?
  3. Will this solution move me toward my desired outcome?


Step 4 to Problem Solve: Implement Solution

Once you have narrowed things down to the solution you think will work best, the next step of your problem-solving skills is to put your solution into action.

This sounds simple, and it can be, but it can also be a little trickier than expected. It’s like that phrase, “easier said than done.” It is one thing to pick a solution, it is another thing to implement it.

In order to save yourself some grief, break your solution down into smaller steps. If it requires money, how are you going to acquire that money? If it requires time, how are you going to keep yourself motivated?

Figure out the barriers to your solution, and then figure out what you can do to overcome them. Often this step is going to require asking for help. Having people who support you, whether they are family, friends, or professionals, can make the difference between success and failure.

We often want to do things on our own. Asking for help can be difficult and uncomfortable. However, it is a necessary problem-solving skill for a whole lot of problems.

Just telling someone about your problem and what your plan to overcome it is will give you more motivation to keep going because someone else knows about it.

Questions to ask during Step 4 of Problem Solving:

  1. What barriers are in my way?
  2. What can I do to overcome those barriers?
  3. What are some ways that other people can help?
  4. Who will I ask to help me?

Step 5 to Problem Solve: Evaluate & Continue or Reconsider

Another of the most important problem-solving skills you can add to your toolbox is the ability to re-evaluate. You are not always going to get it right on your first try–actually, a lot of the time you will not.

The thing is, the more times you fail the more information you will have to get it right on your next try. Failure can be the be-all-end-all, or it can be the next step toward your goal.

In order to evaluate whether you are on the right track, it is helpful to take some time to figure out what is going right and wrong. Often, figuring out what is going wrong is easy. It is human nature to be able to tell which things are not going well.

We tend to struggle a little more with being able to tell what is going right. This is part of what makes re-evaluating challenging because we can get lost down the rabbit hole of our difficulties.

Push yourself to see ways that you have gained some ground. Just being able to stick things out this long is an accomplishment. Examine what it is that has helped you hold on for so long.

Only when you have figured out some strengths, then you can go on to looking at what is not working. You are going to need those strengths to keep you in the game. Being able to re-evaluate may be one of the most important problem-solving, but you have to be able to appreciate yourself and your worth to do it most effectively.

Sometimes you might conclude that your chosen solution really is not working at all. This is why it is so helpful to spend so much time brainstorming! If your current solution is not workable, go back to your list of possibilities and choose another one.

It might even be helpful at this point to come up with a new list of solutions. At this point, you know more than you did when creating your first list.

You will likely spend a decent amount of time going back and forth between problem-solving steps 4 and 5 until you find something that really works for you and gets you closest to your desired outcome.

Questions to ask during Step 5 of Problem-Solving:

  1. What is going well so far, and/or what are my strengths?
  2. What is not going well and what can I do about it?
  3. Is this solution moving me closer to my desired outcome, and if so, is it close enough?
  4. Is this solution working well enough to keep trying for now, or is it time to look at a different solution?

Photo of some steps, like the steps you need for your problem-solving skills.

Problem-Solving Skills Examples

How to Problem Solve in a Relationship

The first problem-solving skill in a relationship is realizing that you cannot change other people. You just can’t. You can tell them ways that they are making your life more difficult and ask them to do something differently, but you cannot force them to actually do so.

Beyond that, let’s discuss how to apply our problem-solving skills from above in a relationship context.

Remember, Step 1 of Problem-Solving is to define the problem. What is the specific relationship problem you would like to address? Just as important, what is the specific outcome you would like to achieve?

Step 2, brainstorming a solution, can be a little tricky because you probably want to come up with one that maintains the relationship. However, while you are brainstorming stick to the rules of brainstorming and just write everything down. Not only will this help you come up with a decent solution, but it will also help you to think about which solutions you would really like to avoid.

You will really sort through these things in Step 3, when you evaluate your solutions to figure out which ones are the easiest, most effective, and most likely to move you toward your desired outcome.

Remember that when you are implementing your solution in Step 4 of our problem-solving steps, that a relationship involves working with other people–at least one, anyway. If the other person in the relationship of concern is responding poorly, it is a good indication that it might be time for Step 5’s re-evaluation.

Also keep in mind, when you are figuring out who to ask for help with this relationship, that the other person could be a good choice. If the relationship is healthy enough to do so, tell the other person that you are trying to solve a problem and would like their help to do so.

It is even better if you can involve them in the whole process if they are willing. Remember, we cannot force other people to do things. But if they are willing to examine the problem and come up with solutions, it will help your solutions to be more effective.

If you are interested in ways to improve social relationships, check out this article about social wellness and how to improve it.

How to Problem Solve in the Workplace

Problem-solving in the workplace can be a little different than problem-solving in a relationship. If your problem is with other people at work, then it is exactly like relationship problem-solving (romantic relationships are not the only kind of relationships, after all).

So start with defining the problem. If it is a people problem, go back to the section above. If it is a process problem or a workflow problem, or a motivation problem, let’s look at how we can apply our problem-solving skills to it.

Once you have defined the problem, brainstorm. This is where pulling in other people can be really helpful. What do your colleagues think about the problem? Has anyone already come up with some solutions?

Brainstorming together with other people is a problem-solving skill that will give you a leg up. They can also help you with evaluating the solutions and implementation.

If your colleagues are not helpful, try to come up with some other people you can ask. If there really is not anyone else, are there experts who have written books or articles in your field who can guide you in the right direction?

Sometimes the problem-solving skill of asking for help does not necessarily mean asking someone corporeally for help. Chances are good that you are not the first pioneer in your field, and that someone else’s questions have been close enough to yours to be of assistance. Do some research to see if your wheel, or something close enough to it, has already been invented.

Photo of some steps in a jungle.

Problem-Solving Scenarios for Adults

When you are an adult engaging in problem-solving situations that involve other adults, you will always do best when remembering their right of self-determination. Remember, remember, remember that you cannot change other people.

Also, keep in mind that while your opinions are generally going to be the most valid ones to you, they are not necessarily going to be the most valid ones for others. Just because you believe that mayo is way better than Miracle Whip does not mean that everyone else does, and it does not make everyone else wrong.

Try to see and work with other people’s differences rather than mowing them down. And if they try to mow you down or disrespect your boundaries, move on. You cannot make other people listen to or respect you.

It would be really, so very nice if we could all listen to and respect each other, but that is not the reality we live in. That does not give you the go-ahead to disrespect others–this is not an effective way to accomplish your goals in the long run. It just means that if others are disrespecting and/or invalidating you, it may be time to find a solution that does not involve them.

If you must work with such a person in order to solve your problem, then part of your problem solving needs to include figuring out ways to keep yourself motivated and compassionate toward yourself. Read this article about self-care, and this one about coping skills, to help you with this.

Problem-Solving Scenarios for Kids

Things are a little different when you are helping kids develop their problem-solving skills. Not only do they not have as much practice at it, but they also do not have as many references for it. Children tend to engage in the same kind of problem-solving skills that their parents engage in.

If you are a parent, try to show through your example what effective problem-solving looks like. Try involving your kids in some basic family problem-solving.

While it would not be appropriate to have your kids help you problem-solve how to pay the bills, they can absolutely help problem-solve what to eat for lunch or how to help a disappointed sibling feel better.

A great problem-solving skill when it comes to kids is validating their problems. Not being able to eat fruit snacks for lunch might not be a great disappointment for you, but it can be colossal to a three-year-old whose understanding of the world and their emotions is still very much in flux.

Validation does not mean agreement. You can validate that you understand why your kid wants to eat fruit snacks for lunch because fruit snacks are tasty, and still hold the boundary of fruit snacks not being an option for lunch because there are better options.

Children need validation so that they can learn how to feel and process their emotions, and they also need boundaries so that they know what is and is not appropriate and/or safe. Whether you are a parent, teacher, family member, or another meaningful adult, utilizing both will help children learn how to problem-solve better.

Photo of stairs leading to the top of a hill, keeping with the theme of steps for problem-solving skills.

In Conclusion

Problem-solving is a process that requires multiple problem-solving skills along the way. It is a process that requires patience and a willingness to evaluate yourself and work with others.

If you find yourself getting stuck at any step along the way, try going to the step before. Moving a step back is ultimately a step forward when it moves you closer to your desired outcome.

Keep your desired outcome in mind along the way. Sometimes we can get bogged down in the challenges our problems pose and forget what we are struggling so hard for. Find ways to keep your end goal in sight, even if it is a long way off.

Remember that you are not alone in this. Find people to involve in your problem-solving process. And if you find some great strategies along the way, please share them in the comments below!

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