How many of you can relate to this scenario: you want your kid to do one thing (e.g., do a school night routine) but your kid wants to do a different thing (e.g., go to a friend’s house). The resulting drama can last days or, in the case of teenagers, weeks. Problem solving is a technique for avoiding that drama. I’ll review the steps here. You’ll need this handout to use the technique (it includes both a blank form for the exercise and a completed example).
Step #1: Everyone gets their own sheet. Each person should write down the problem at the top and stick to solving only it. Families often sit down to solve a particular problem but then often digress into a wide array of lamentations, some of which seem to pre-date the Old Testament.
Step #2: Brainstorm as many ideas as you can to solve the problem without evaluating them. Just as a light switch can’t be on and off at the same time, we can’t be fully creative and evaluative at the same time. I suggest generating at least 10 ideas and two minutes of silence before stopping. That is, make yourselves get to at least 10 possible solutions and then only stop once you go two minutes without anyone thinking of another idea. So, you may end up with more than 10 ideas. (On the form, it’s important that each person’s line has the same idea.)
Step #3: Evaluate each idea. Each person’s name occupies a column to the right of the ideas. Privately put either a + (acceptable idea) or a – (not an acceptable idea) next to each potential solution.
Step #4 (the miracle step): Everyone declare whether you put a plus or a minus next to each idea. The “miracle” is that I’ve never had a family not have at least one idea that is acceptable to all.
Step #5: Rank the ideas. Copy down in the bottom section of the form those ideas that everyone ranked as a plus. Then privately assign each of these ideas a number from 1 (an idea that is barely okay) to 10 (a rocking good idea). After everyone has completed their ratings add them up to see how the ideas rank. It’s important that you declare, up front, whether you are going to operate as a democracy (top idea(s) win) or a benevolent dictatorship (parent(s) to consider the rankings but reserve the right to decide).
Step #6: Develop your plan, which may include more than one of the solutions.
(Reviewing the completed example may help to clear up any confusion.)
When I do this with families in my office, who are brand new to the technique, the average amount of time it takes to do the exercise is between 20-30 minutes, which most agree is way better than the drama.
Good luck folks! Oh, and I have much more on this and similar techniques in my parenting book Working Parents, Thriving Families: 10 Strategies that Make a Difference.