3 Approaches to Solving Problems

When faced with a conflict with someone else, people often do not know how to proceed. Having a method to deal with problems can be helpful. Whether there is a problem at work with an employee or a problem at home with spouse or a child, taking one of the following three approaches should result in a more positive outcome. The main difference being that with employees or children you have the ultimate say, but with a spouse you are equal partners, each responding to the needs and wishes of the other.

Let us start with the first method, which I call the preventive approach. The preventive approach deals with picking up early signs that something may be brewing and dealing with the potential conflict before it escalates into a full-blown one. It is difficult to do because we often hope that if nothing is said, the problem will disappear of its own accord, or that it will just happen a few times and that will be it.

The reality is that if a behavior seems to go unnoticed, or at least isn't talked about, the assumption is that one can continue it. If you don't want to make a big deal out of a first or second-time dysfunctional behavior, it is possible to say something about it casually: "This is the third time you're late for work, is anything wrong?" Or to a child: "This is the second time you've not finished your homework, what can we do about it?"

In other words, during the preventive stage, you gather information in a non-threatening way. You make it known that you have noticed and are available as a resource, even if only as a sounding board. You make no judgment, you do not evaluate. You are just an impartial, yet concerned, observer.

The therapeutic approach assumes that a problem needs to be dealt with and that the person can be helped. It is important to mention the good points as well as the weak ones, illustrating each with specific examples.

The caveat here is that the person must be willing to acknowledge that there is a problem and also agree to receive some help. In other words, the boss or parent becomes an acceptable resource -- pointing out what is wrong, how it can be fixed, and the expected outcome. If it is a spouse or coworker whose behavior causes a problem, one must find out how aware the person is of the behavior and its impact and whether he or she is willing to change.

Knowing that you are there to solve a problem together will allow difficult employees, uncooperative children, and unaware spouses to participate in a discussion. It is important to set a time when you will talk again to check on progress toward mutually agreed-upon goals. This can be the next day, next week, or next month, with specific behaviors that need to be reduced or eliminated and others, which will replace them.

The final approach is punitive. When the therapeutic approach has failed, it is time to threaten. Unless there is improvement, the following consequences are likely to occur: for an employee it can be no opportunity for promotions, a demotion and, of course, being fired. Whatever it is that you threaten with, you must then carry it out. With a child, it is usually taking away some privilege; with a spouse, it is negative changes in your own behavior or even eventual divorce as a response to lack of effort on the part of the spouse.

Sometimes it is actually your unmet expectations of this employee, spouse, or child that creates the problem. They may not understand what is expected, or they may not act appropriately because of inherent limitations, lack of training, or motivation. It is also possible that they are reacting to stress or some other factor which is not directly related to the problem at hand.

It is important for a superior to know the reasons for their employees' difficulties, for a spouse to understand what goes on in the other person's mind and heart, and for a parent to know the reasons for a child's problems. When dealing with others, one must always be observing, gathering information, diagnosing, planning, and evaluating the possible impact. A manager's, spouse's, or parent's job is never done -- it is always in process.