Problems are a part of Life. You can’t avoid them, but you don’t have to obsess about them. If you are stuck with a problem, whether it’s between you and another person, a habit you want to change, something work-related, or a practical issue like finding an apartment or changing your job, we all come up against issues that can challenge us, keep us awake at night, and generally spoil our waking days,

Problems may be unavoidable, but they don’t have to define you. They may be terribly inconvenient, troubling, or even frightening, but they begin to lose their power the moment you confront them.

As soon as you begin to think about a challenging situation as something you can do something about, you are in control. At first, you may not know what you can do nor how to go about it. It wouldn’t be a problem if you knew those things.  Knowing where to start is often what puts people off getting to grips with a problem, but I have a list of questions that will help you to clarify your thinking.

Are you stuck with a problem?

When a problem seems to have no solution, or the answer is outside your control, this is often because it has begun to overwhelm you. In that case, the first thing to do is to step back, take a moment to think of your problem as something which has a solution, you just haven’t found it yet. 

There really aren’t any new or unique problems. Humans have been around long enough so, whatever the difficulty is, someone somewhere has already either solved it or found a way to live with it. 

It’s important to realise this because then you don’t feel so alone. In itself it may not be much consolation, but it is the first step towards moving out of your ‘problem mindset’ towards a more constructive way of thinking.

Asking the right questions

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 six 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?

People often 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 must – in your imagination – create a space where you can think and feel as you would if the problem no longer existed. 

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?

Then ask yourself, “What is the first, small step I could take to move me towards feeling like that every day?”

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?

When you are stuck with a problem, a powerful strategy is to visualise yourself in your post-problem life. A month or a year in the future. 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 stronger the image you manage to create for yourself the more powerful it becomes.

Is it your problem to solve?

It is 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 tire you out. 

Equally, if you are trying single-handedly to fix your own, ailing relationship, that’s not right because a relationship is the responsibility of both partners. It isn’t right, fair, or effective for one person to get stuck with a problem that belongs to you both.

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 (here are 7 Steps to Help Control Worrying 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, flexibility, and 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. Mostly, human beings are natural and excellent problem solvers. When we get stuck with a problem it is often because of traps that we unwittingly create for ourselves. These questions can help you loosen up your thinking and become more flexible in how you approach a challenge. 

If you’d like to discuss this topic with me, you can email me. Talking it through is often all it takes to generate a solution or find your way forward.

I’m a psychologist, coach, and therapist. All my work is aimed at enabling people to improve personal aspects of their lives and work.