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Help! A Problem-Solver's Guide

So the next time you're faced with a problem, listen closely for your response to why it's happening. When you shift your perspective, a troublesome situation can become more manageable -- and less stressful.
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by Terri Trespicio

Life is full of trials, both big and small -- no surprise there. The fight with a coworker, an expensive repair, plans with a friend that fall through. But did you know that the way in which we attempt to solve the problems that arise makes these inevitable situations harder to handle?

Have you ever thought, "This always happens to me!" or "Everything is ruined now!" when something goes awry? These reactions are called our "Why Style," and we all tend to have habitual Why Styles that are inaccurate and get in the way of problem-solving. "When we get hit by a problem, the very first thing we do is ask, 'why is this happening?'" says Andrew Shatté, PhD, Chief Science Officer for meQuilibrium. "This is normal, but we need to catch ourselves when we fall into the Why Styles that tend to generalize that things are all bad or it's all someone else's fault."

There are two Why Styles that trip us up the most. Let's explore them now, and learn how to flex around them to unlock your problem-solving power.

1. "That's just the way it is."

One Why Style that can create a cascade of stress is called, "Always vs. Not Always." Here's an example: Let's say your daughter won't focus on her schoolwork and her grades are slipping.

An "Always" response would be: "This is how kids are. They just always do what they want, regardless of what's best for them." This frames the issue as a permanent problem, which makes finding a solution much more difficult.

On the other hand, a "Not Always" response allows for variation and circumstance: "This isn't like her. Maybe something's bothering her at school. We should talk about what's really going on." A "Not Always" response allows us to see the issue as temporary--and allows us to consider a wider breadth of solutions. In other words, when you can see a situation as something that is happening now, rather than an unchangeable rule, you can address it more effectively--far better than if you assume that things are and will "always" be this way.

2. "I'm no good at this."

The other Why Style that trips us up is "Everything vs. Not Everything," in which you either make a sweeping generalization or see each issue as a standalone event.

Let's say your manager disapproves of how you handled a project. With an "Everything" response, you might think: "No one's ever happy with what I do. I'm no good at this."

But the more resilient response is the "Not Everything" response: "There must be a specific reason why she didn't like how I handled this. Once I find out, I can make sure it doesn't happen again."

"These two Why Styles are problematic because people who default to them--and I'm one of them--tend to see only those causes of a problem that, by definition, are going to be around forever and affect everything, as opposed to being solvable and controllable," says Dr. Shatté. "With a little flexibility, we can get to some more temporary and specific causes that allow us some leverage over the problem."

So the next time you're faced with a problem, listen closely for your response to why it's happening. When you shift your perspective, a troublesome situation can become more manageable -- and less stressful.