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How to Use Problem-Solving Therapy with Your Clients

8 questions you can ask to help clients solve problems faster


The right question can be key to helping a client solve their problem

“Any idiot can face a crisis – it’s day to day living that wears you out.”

– Anton Chekhov

“Persistence and resilience only come from having been given the chance to work through difficult problems.”

– Gever Tulley

A common fantasy is of a golden and entirely problem-free future. Sound familiar? The assumption of such a fantasy is, of course, that a life free of problems is (a) possible and (b) by definition, one of happiness.

But could you really live without problems?

We are problem-solving creatures.1 I suspect we can only be truly happy if we have problems, because rising to challenge gives life meaning.2 But, paradoxically, we often feel unhappy until we have solved our problems. Ah, the paradox of being human! But if we dig into this, the paradox dissolves.

This is because some problems are more problematic, depressing, and overwhelming than others. Some problems are intriguing and fun, while some are depressing and limiting, or at least seem like that. Problems are the fertilizer that helps us grow and develop. But, of course, it’s the kind of problems we have, and how we respond to them, that determines how meaningful life is for us.

Research has found that the kind of happiness associated with taking and getting is less physically beneficial for people than the kind we experience when we seek to help other people and make the world better in some way. The kind of happiness, or perhaps I should say enjoyment, associated with drug taking and drinking, for example, had similar effects on the body to the stress response from terrible adversity.3

Which leads us to a cliché, but one worth considering.

The more you give, the more you get

When we help others, even when we help ‘us’ rather than simply ‘I’, we are seeking to solve problems that are connected to a sense of a wider, more meaningful life. This kind of satisfaction tends to be more nourishing. Simply looking for repeated thrills or highs can, pretty quickly, start to feel as meaningful as continually trying to fill a bucket with no bottom to it. A ‘bucket list’ is all very well… if the bucket being filled leads to fulfillment.

So, we can, I think, learn a lot about a person from their stated problems. Compare “My life isn’t providing me with meaning!” with “How can I make a difference?”

It’s a terrible cliché to say: “The more you give the more you get” but I would add to this truism “… especially when you forget about getting.”

But if finding solutions to problems and rising to the challenge of making things better can give us that all-important sense of meaning, what is the problem with problems?

Problematic problems

Problems become problematic when our clients lose hope that they can solve them, and especially when they can’t stop thinking about them.

Learned helplessness causes our clients to wrongly feel they’re less empowered than they actually are. They may have come to feel that life simply happens to them, and it had better treat them kindly because they don’t have any influence over life.

The other problem with problems is when people can think of nothing else. If we mull over our problems in the absence of hope, then we become dangerously vulnerable to depression.4,5 If we feel we can’t solve problems, then we may substitute imagination and circular thinking for action.

If we feel we can't solve problems, we may substitute imagination and circular thinking for actionClick To Tweet

If a person doesn’t have volition over where they place their attention, they will find that their focus becomes locked on what makes them feel bad. They will feel unable to withdraw their attention from that particular focus. We see this locking of attention, and difficulty withdrawing it, in addiction, obsession, and, of course, depression.

Sometimes, this kind of locked attention on problems can prove to be worse than the problems themselves.

The problem behind the problem

Because professionals like to slice reality thinly, problem-solving therapy has come to be seen as a type of therapy.

But all therapy is problem-solving therapy. Either we seek to help our clients ‘solve the problem’ by feeling and thinking differently about it, or we help them find ways to solve an actual practical problem (or both!).

Seek to establish how many of your clients’ problems are themselves maladaptive attempts to solve problems.

A client may have come to you for help because they are a control freak. But what problems is their control freakery maladaptively trying to solve? Anxiety? Fear? Jealousy?

The first part of a therapy session, along with building rapport, is information gathering. So what questions can we ask our clients about their problems as a first step to helping them solve them?

Problem-solving therapy questions

Clients come to us when they have some kind of problem. Sometimes they have multiple problems. First off, we need to ask them if they feel the problem is soluble in practical terms or if they need to find ways to feel and think differently about the situation.

In addition, we can ask:

  1. Have they been using problem-solving strategies, consciously or otherwise, that cause them further problems? Examples might be trying to inflexibly exert control in ways that cause problems or excessive drinking as a way to self-medicate for anxiety.
  2. Have they been worrying about problems that could arise in the future? If so, it’s clear they’ve been misusing their imagination. We can help them imagine differently or even suspend imagination and therefore better tolerate uncertainty.
  3. To what extent does their life feel meaningful to them? We can ascertain through listening to our clients to what extent they have been meeting their primal emotional needs in balance.
  4. What was happening in their lives generally when the problem first developed?
  5. How do they generally go about solving problems? What is their problem-solving style? Displacement (alcohol or drugs)? Ignoring (head in the sand)? Anger? Passivity? Could they learn to think and solve problems differently?
  6. What ways they have already tried to deal with their problem? What has worked? What hasn’t worked? If I find my client has tried something before with success, I may want to do more of that with them. Reinventing the wheel is a waste of time.
  7. Do they normally solve problems well but have come to a situation that cannot simply be solved through common and generally effective problem-solving strategies? If so, they may simply need support and emotional help to lower anxiety around problematic situations. Sometimes the way to ‘solve a problem’ that can’t immediately be solved in a practical way is to deal with it better and respond differently on an emotional level.
  8. What resources do they have in terms of their environment, relationships, and personal resources? We can help them build up a sense of these resources and utilize them more fully.

Clients often have problems dealing with the uncertainties of life. We can remind them that the opposite of certainty needn’t necessarily be uncertainty, but rather can be an openness to discovery.

But we can also form problem-solving strategies with our clients.

Way to go!

Clients often come to us because they don’t know which way to go in life. They may not even know what they want. Maybe they have simply been living life in terms of what they don’t want.

We can help them clarify the problem, but also start to look beyond it.

You could be in a beautiful landscape with wonderful paths to follow, but if you walk around continually holding a large rock right in front of your eyes, that is all you will see. Talk of which path would be good for you to follow might feel meaningless, because all you see is the close-up rock.

We can help our clients put down their ‘rocks’ to see what path they might like to travel beyond the problem.

So how can we do this? Well, we can:

A good practitioner will also be able to help their clients devise practical solutions sometimes. If we get a sense of the steps a client might need to take in order to solve some real-world problem, then we may be able to offer ideas or help them form a plan to get the help they need from other professionals. For example, I have put clients in touch with physiotherapists and even legal experts.

Clients may be our problems, but I prefer to think of them as challenges. Actually, better than that – we can see them as our guides to what is truly possible for people.

Watch problem-solving strategies inside Uncommon Practitioners TV

Our online resource for live therapy videos is a great place to watch problem-solving in action. If you’re not a member already and would like to join hundreds of therapy practitioners, you can sign up here to be notified when booking is open.

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Mark Tyrrell

About Mark Tyrrell

Psychology is my passion. I've been a psychotherapist trainer since 1998, specializing in brief, solution focused approaches. I now teach practitioners all over the world via our online courses.

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