I’ve been looking at a lot of self-help forums lately. not that I need help, at least, I don’t think so. I’m searching because I was asked to think about developing a Q&A forum for a commercial client.

My surfing was about research; looking at what the market has to offer and maybe getting a few pointers.

Problems and challenges are part of life. It’s not our difficulties that define us, but how we deal with them.

And I’ve been disappointed. Not by the range of resources, there must be thousands of sites, but by the quality of advice and guidance on offer.

My initial research suggests there are two types of self-help site, three, if you consider forums.

Advertising in disguise

The first is thinly disguised advertising. The site, and/or its content only exist to promote something or someone. That’s not a problem in itself, but it can be misleading and very disappointing if you are genuinely looking for serious answers or guidance.

The second a kind of glorified ‘problem pages’. People using the site post questions, and cyberspace responds. 

Again, there is advertising which clashes with the personal nature of the problems being posted. There is generally no quality control, so ‘advice’ is in the form of people’s opinions. One thing we don’t need more of – especially when we are struggling with a problem – is unqualified opinions. 

Forums are a mix of the two and, unless they are properly managed, membership sites they simply combine the problems of the first two types, above. 

The slight exception to this is Quora. This site attracts some seriously qualified responders. You still have to sift through the responses, but diligence can pay off with some real nuggets of wisdom.

(I said slight exception because, increasingly you have to wade through dross to find those nuggets).

As a therapist and mediator, I’ve been helping people problem-solve for the greater part of my career. One of the first jobs, in either role, is to help my clients define just what the problem is. 

This might seem odd, but it isn’t so strange. When a problem dominates your thoughts it can be difficult to see the wood for the trees, and that’s often the reason that people seek help in the first place.

So I have put together a brief guide to help you think through any problem or challenge you face. These five questions will guide you through the maze of distractions and side-issues that can stop you seeing the problem clearly. Once you’ve isolated it, you can do something about it. 

Let’s get started:

What is the problem you are hoping to solve?

A lot of people come to me because they haven’t yet worked out what it is they want to change. A good starting point is to ask yourself “What is the problem I’m trying to solve?”

Try writing it out, preferably longhand. You’ll find your mind works differently during the process. It will help you think more clearly about your situation. Aim to write a couple of paragraphs, then condense it to the essential point you want to make – the problem you are hoping to solve.

How would it be if the problem disappeared?

You can make this question even more powerful by asking yourself “How will it be when the problem has disappeared?”

To answer, you have to imagine that you wake up one morning and the problem has gone. To be effective, you really have – in your imagination – to create a space where you can think and feel as you would if the problem no longer exists. 

What will tell you things have changed? How would you find out that the problem has gone? Most importantly, what will you be doing now you are in a problem-free state of mind?

Have you considered ‘Life after’?

No, I don’t mean the after-life. I mean have you thought about how your life could be after the problem has gone away for good?

A powerful strategy is to visualise yourself in your post-problem life. What will you be doing? How will you feel? How will others see you? What change would your family see in you? As with the last question, the better the image you manage to create for yourself the more powerful it becomes.

Is it your problem to solve?

It’s easy to assume responsibility for a problem when really it’s not yours to sort out. For example, if two friends or family members are in conflict, only they can find a way forward. Trying to do it for them will just wear you out. 

Equally, if you are trying single-handedly to fix your own, ailing relationship, that’s not right either. A relationship is the responsibility of both partners. If you shoulder the burden you just hide the problem. If that works for you, fine, but long-term is the best you can do?

What if you can’t solve the problem?

Seriously, ask yourself this. Many of life’s difficulties simply go away over time. Focussing on them only keeps them alive for longer. Other problems can’t be resolved (it’s said that 69% of the things that couples argue about have no solution). Learning to compromise or work around the challenges are important life-skills, so practice on the problem that won’t go away.

What if you just stop worrying?

Sometimes the simplest answer is the best. It may be difficult to stop the worry (you’ll find guidance here to help you), but when you do you’ll begin to build your resilience and get on with your life. 

As you go through these questions take your time to reflect on them. If any are difficult for you to answer, move on to the others. Problem-solving is about thinking creatively, using a changed mindset. These questions are designed to facilitate that change.

Problems and challenges are part of life. It’s not our difficulties that define us, but how we deal with them. These questions can help you loosen up your thinking and become more flexible in how you approach a challenge. 

I’m always here

If you’d like to discuss this topic with me, you can use the form below and we can set up a Skype chat. Talking it through is often all it takes to generate a solution or find your way forward. The first conversation is free.