In Solution Focused Brief Therapy (SFBT) there is an idea that is simple yet deceptively powerful. It is a notion that can break a cycle of unproductive behaviour and indicate a route out of the problem. It seems counter-intuitive, and it isn’t limited to SFBT. It is rooted in the idea that – when our first attempts to solve a problem don’t work – we often get stuck in a rut of ‘doing more of the same’, rather than doing something different.

If, like me, you have been struggling with a problem that defies your best efforts and remains steadfastly problematic, consider this: Your attempted solution might be part of the problem!

If you are in a struggle that seems to be self-perpetuating, take some time to stand back and reconsider. Ask yourself some probing questions, and seek to answer yourself honestly.

One of the side effects of our attempts to fix things is that our attempted solution can make them worse. This is is not because we bungle it, but because the things we try often have unintended consequences. Take for example what so often happens in conflict. Both parties in the dispute want to get their point across in the face of the other’s obstinacy (as these it).

Since neither side is ‘hearing’ the other, both step up their efforts to be heard – becoming more insistent, dogmatic and LOUDER –  with the result that the conflict escalates. The down-side of frustrated attempts to solve the problem of feeling unheard is that we appear aggressive… this not only perpetuates the problem we are trying solve, it can actually create new one, like war, for example.

Another comment example is when someone feels depressed. One of the problems of depression is that it can make you feel detached and isolated. So what does a depressed person typically do? Anticipating rejection, or feeling like a nuisance, their attempted solution is to avoid people, at a time when they could really benefit from social contact and support.

In this case the attempted solution, to stay away from people to avoid being made to feel worse, adds to the sense of isolation. This in turn reinforces the their distorted belief that they are not wanted and increases the sense of isolation. When helping someone overcome depression it can be helpful to get them to engage in activities that encourage social contact, walking with others, for example.

Do something different

I found a solution to my problem by reminding myself to break the pattern of attempt-failure-reattempt; by doing something different. Thus, a minor problem did not mature into something more serious due to my efforts to solve it.

A simple way to break this deadlock that can arise in such situations is to ‘do a 180° turn’. This means looking at options that would mean doing the opposite of what you have been doing so far.

In an argument, rather than trying to impose your view, stand back, listen, and be curious about your opponents view. In the case of depression, break the cycle by cautiously beginning to do the things that depression encourages you NOT to do.

We are creatures of habit. There’s nothing wrong with that and it has many advantages when our habits help us do things more efficiently. But struggle is self-reinforcing, so continuing to wrangle the problem when that’s not working reinforces the unproductive habit. And it makes us short-sighted and less confident.

And another thing!

Interesting consequence of writing this post is that I came across the Cobra Effect.