Quite often when it comes to making changes in our lives, we focus on problems. We consider what’s not going well and try to fix it. We call this problem solving. Sometimes these efforts are fruitful, but when they’re not, we can end up feeling stuck and unsure of what to do next. That’s often when focusing on problems doesn’t do us much good.
For this reason, an increasing number of people have found a solution-focused approach to be more fitting. As the name suggests, a solution-focused approach is concerned with creating solutions, rather than solving problems. By getting a better sense of what is actually working in our lives, we become more aware of the skills and abilities that we use to make change happen. We can then consider actions we might take to do more of what is working.
You can take this kind of approach in your own life is by focusing on difference in a couple of key ways:
- When is the problem or concern less prevalent or even absent?
Example: Patrick (an alias) once sought counselling from me for a problem he called depression. He explained to me that he felt depressed “all the time” – an over-generalization that many of us use when things aren’t going well. I first asked him how he knew that he was depressed, and he explained that whenever he’s depressed he plays up to 6 hours of video games per day. I asked him when the last time he didn’t feel depressed was, and he responded saying that he felt better than he had in a long time 2 weeks prior to our meeting, when he got together with a group of old friends to play board games. I asked him how many hours of video games he played that day, and he said “only 2”, adding, “I don’t think I played more than 1 hour the next day. I must have been feeling pretty good!”
As our conversation went on, it became clearer that Patrick consistently felt better when he was connected and engaged in positive social relationships, which wasn’t always easy given the nature of his work. The focus of the conversation shifted from “depression” to “connection”, which was contrasted against "loneliness". By the end, Patrick figured that his unhappiness and excessive (as defined by him) use of video games were better understood as responses to an unfulfilled longing for connection, rather than evidence of depression. He was then able to create a viable solution: Set up regular times to connect with people he cares about in meaningful, uplifting ways. Of course, once he did this, the problem he initially described as “depression” was no longer part of the picture.
How would things be different if the problem was no longer part of your life?
- What would you be doing differently? What would others notice about you?
- How would you be doing that?
Example: Sam (an alias) wanted counselling to address stress and anxiety in her life. When I asked her to say a little bit more about her experiences of anxiety and stress, she explained how she felt so tightly wound that she would often go an entire day without eating, which would deplete her energy to do other things that typically helped her deal with stress, including her sleep and connecting with her partner (whom she had little patience with more recently). I asked her what would be different if she wasn’t so stressed and anxious, and she described how she would be “taking better care of herself”, which would include taking time to eat nourishing food, sleeping better, and being more kind to her partner.
I invited Sam to try an experiment:
- Flip a coin before going to bed at night.
- If the coin lands tails, she can do as she pleases the next day.
- If the coin lands heads, she would perform the next day as though things really were different in the ways she was longing for.
The next time we met, I asked her how things were different since we saw each other previously, and she said they were significantly better. She had committed to trying the experiment I recommended. Over the course of the week, when her coin landed with the heads side up, she made a concerted effort to eat three nourishing meals throughout the day, along with healthful snacks when she needed them. On the first two days when she did this, she noticed she had more energy, felt less stress in response to challenges in her daily life, and was more patient with her partner. Even when she flipped tails, she decided to act as though the coin landed heads side up, and she felt far more equipped to handle situations she was struggling with previously. Rather than focusing on problem solving, Sam found solutions that made her concerns feel more manageable and less overwhelming.
When it feels like you’ve been struggling to solve problems, try exploring these questions in your own way:
- When are things better?
- What are you doing differently when things are better?
- What skills and knowledge do you draw on to make things better?
- What would you need to do/what would have to happen to do that more often?
- Is there something you’d like to see yourself doing differently in your response to the problem?
- What actions might that require of you?
- How will you know when you’re moving in the direction you want to be?
- With all the challenges you’ve been facing, how have you managed to make it through as well as you have so far?
- Who else has noticed your progress or coping?
- What strengths do you think they notice in you that have been helpful?
- If you continue in this way, how do you think things will be different in 1 month? 3 months? 6 months?