Problem vs. Solution Focused Thinking

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Every person approaches a problem in a different way. Some focus on the problem or the reason why a problem emerged (problem focused thinking). Others prefer to think about possible solutions that help them to solve a problem (solution focused thinking).

Problem Oriented Thinking:

Approaching a difficult situation problem oriented might be helpful if we attempt to avoid similar problems or mistakes in the future, but when it comes to solving the problem we simply waste large amounts of our precious time! Problem focused thinking does not help us at all to solve difficult situations, which is especially necessary in times where one must find quick solutions to an upcoming problem. Furthermore the problem focused approach can have negative effects on ones motivation, but more on this later.

The whole “problem vs. solution oriented thinking” – approach does not only apply when a person faces a problem or a difficult situation (as previously mentioned), but is also being applied in one’s everyday life, when we have to face a challenging task or when having to perform several duties. In fact: if we really focus our attention on this topic we can discover that the majority of our decisions and our attitudes towards tasks, problems and upcoming situations will either be problem or solution oriented. In order to demonstrate you the problem and solution focused approach I have chosen to give you the example of a college student:

Let’s say there is a college student that really does not like math at all (it doesn’t matter what subject he does not like, but I do not like math as well). Just like every other college student he will have to do some homework for math and if he wants to pass the exams he will have to study a lot, whether he likes math or not. The student would be approaching the subject math problem oriented if he would continuously imagine all the negative aspects about math that he does not like and might ask himself the question, “Why do I have to study for math? For what kind of reason?”. The college student would be talking with his fellow students about the pointlessness of math, which will only strengthen his negative opinion about math. Rather than focusing his energy on studying for math he will get uptight and spends large amounts of his time in an ineffective way, that won’t help him to pass the exams.

When I was in school I heard similar questions whole the time, especially when it came to subjects that the majority of my classmates did not like. To be honest, when I was younger I was asking myself these questions as well, especially in subjects that I knew were pointless for the profession I wanted to become. When I grew older I started to scrutinize this behavior and noticed how senseless it was to focus all my attention on problem focused thinking, especially as this only decreased my motivation and strengthened my resentment towards these subjects.

Discovering that one is majorly approaching tasks and challenges problem focused can be really difficult, but once we are aware of this we can start to change our focus from the problem towards the solution and make use of the solution focused thinking.

Let us come back to the example of the college student that was thinking problem oriented. In order to think solution oriented he would need to completely accept the fact that math is a part of his schedule and will therefore be tested in his exams, whether he likes math or not. By accepting this fact he will easily destroy the root cause for questions that focus on the reason for something (“Why?”) and that only waste his time.

We start to think solution oriented once we are aware that we cannot change certain facts/problems and will only spend our time in an inefficient way when we seek for the possible reasons for these situations. By clarifying the reasons why the task we have to face (e.g. math) might be important, for example to get accepted in a good university or to increase our GPA, we can bring the solution focused thinking to a further level.

It is really astounding to see how many people are thinking problem oriented, especially as this behavior starts in school and can be found in the professional world as well, for example when an employee has to face a new task that he is not familiar with, or has little to no knowledge about. Those that think problem oriented would be imagining all the negative consequences they might have to face or all the mistakes they might commit, when trying to solve the task. The employee will talk about his difficult situation with different colleagues, his partner or friends, which will only increase his fear of the upcoming task.

Decision

When you focus only on the problem, you might miss a new path.

The employee that quite in the contrary knows of the benefits of solution focused thinking does not struggle with the new task for a second, as he is too busy to take necessary preparations to solve it. He will completely accept the new task as a challenge, or even consider the task as a chance to prove his boss that he is capable to solve even the more advanced tasks.

How to avoid problem focused thinking?

#1 Self-knowledge:

In order to avoid problem focused thinking and to replace it with solution oriented thinking we firstly need to discover that we approach different tasks, problems, challenges, etc. in a problem oriented way. This is the utmost important step to do. You can identify whether you approach tasks problem oriented by paying attention towards the questions that arise when you have to face a task that you do not like, which might be indicators for problem focused thinking:

  • Why do I have to perform this task?
  • What is the reason that I have to study this subject?
  • Why do I even spend time with this?

#2 Fight problem oriented questions:

The very first step to approach problems with solution focused thinking is to avoid questions that mainly focus on the reason or the problem in general. You need to clarify yourself that the question for the “WHY” will only waste important time that you could have invested to solve a given problem.

#3 Clarity:

When you come to the conclusion that a task needs to be done you will see the pointlessness of further evaluating the usefulness or non-usefulness of a task. So when you have to face a task that you dislike you could ask yourself the question, “Has this task to be fulfilled?” and when you conclude that the answer is “Yes”, then you know that every further attempt to evaluate the reasons and the “Why’s” is a waste of time.

#4 Why is it important to solve this task?

Questioning and clarifying the importance of a task will finally erase the root cause of every problem oriented question. By clarifying the reasons why a tasks needs to be performed we can effectively change our focus from the problem to possible solutions.

#5 Think about the solution:

The final step to profit from solution focused thinking the most is to ask yourself different questions on how you can solve a given task or problem:

  • How can I solve this task?
  • How can I address this problem?
  • What would be the first step to solve this problem?
  • What kind of preparations will be necessary for this task?

Why does problem focused thinking decrease motivation?

Just imagine yourself having to study for an upcoming test (whether it is for school or a professional development is unimportant). While you are sitting in front of your table you start thinking about the exam and how much you dislike the whole subject. Questions that address the reason why you have to study for this subject start to arise and will ensure that you lose even the slightest interest in your task. Without being interested and a dozen of different questions that start to arise we finally lack motivation to study for the exam!

Problem vs. Solution oriented thinking was presented by our Personality Growth Website.


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Steve is the founder of Planet of Success, the #1 choice when it comes to motivation, self-growth and empowerment. This world does not need followers. What it needs is people who stand in their own sovereignty. Join us in the quest to live life to the fullest!

17 Comments

  1. Just saying Problem focused approach wastes time is ridiculous. It depends on what situation you’re in. If you’re preparing for an exam like olympiads, Problem focused approach is Best whereas while in actual exam, a solution focused approach might be better. You’re not going to learn and understand anything unless you ask yourself the questions like Why, What and How. But I can’t expect the same fro someone who has disliked Maths.

  2. The issue of stress is ignored here. Tolerance for ambiguity is reduced by stress. When stressed, any additional requirement is a “problem.” This starts a downward spiral. A willingness to reduce our personal stress (with good diet, aerobic exercise, adequate sleep, etc.) can allow us to acknowledge our willingness (and culpability) in accepting new challenges, which can then take us away from an “Everything is a problem” attitudes.

    • Hello Jane, this is an incredibly important remark you make here. Thank you for sharing it. I hadn’t considered it from this perspective, but you are absolutely right.

      • I hate to be offensive, but I also don’t like to say, “No offense”, so I will tell you something that will probably offend you, Steve. But if you hadn’t considered it from that perspective, then you probably aren’t fully qualified to be writing articles like this. You obviously haven’t studied the full depths and ramifications of the issue.

        Furthermore, you are telling people to ignore emotions which are a signal to them that something is wrong. Certainly, people can become TOO overtaken by those emotions, but just ignoring those emotions pushes them aside and suppresses them. Ultimately, it is those reactions and emotions that are the barometer of everything that we do. I’m not saying that there isn’t merit to what you are saying, but putting it in such black and white terms ignores so many factors that people deal with.

        Finally, there is a strong value to considering problems, and even dwelling on them. It is a natural psychological process. The “why” is often crucial. It also leads to critical thinking and evaluating. Maybe there is a better process that could be undertaken to do the set of tasks much more efficiently, which leads to innovating thinking. It allows for questioning of morality, efficiency, ramifications and consequences. Even visceral reactions to problems can be an indicator of a deeper problem that needs to be addressed. Shutting any these down can cause numerous problems down the road.

        I’m not saying that the article doesn’t provide merit, but the fact that you haven’t brought up many of the innumerable other factors to be considered really makes me think that you shouldn’t be writing articles like this, because you simply have only cursory knowledge of the psychology involved.

        I’m sorry if that stings, but I think you may be doing more harm than good by saying these things.

  3. The only reason one (stakeholder) would recognize a situation and label it as a problem is when it demands a solution. Thus problem and solution co-exist – the latter waiting to be discovered. Difficult for me to understand what a problem oriented approach would be.

    “Why should I do this task?” simply means that one is not a stakeholder. If so, the problem simply does not exist!

    • My intention behind writing this article was to point out that some people only focus on the problem, whereas other people take notice of the problem but more eager to find a solution. The first approach involves complaining, but does not lead anywhere. The second approach is not so prone to complaining, but actively seeks for solutions to the problem.

      • The key term here is orientation not exclusivity. I consider myself to be a solution-oriented person and also know that it is essential that I define what a problem actually entails before I set about trying to resolve it. Sometimes this process is met with a significant amount of resistance due to the emotional discomfort that can arise during my search to define something. Logic dictates that it is seldom a black and white scenario. Acceptance of a problem can be a bigger challenge than we initially realise. Also over-simplifying issues around problem-solving will not do justice to the sometimes complex nature of any problem and/or solution. I do believe the concept of being solution-oriented is a health directed approach and leaves less room for unhealthy manipulation. That is where I see the value in this kind of orientation. Mental and physical health always come into any equation (yes, I said that) involving problems and solutions that need attention to improve health and well being. Thanks for your thoughts and intentions Steve. I believe you are on the right track.

  4. The mentality in this article is common in business management etc, but unfortunately, it is not so simple as it would have you believe. The described solution-driven thinking implies falling in line with the current power structure and establishment, and naturally is promoted wide and far.

    I consider problem-oriented thinking closely linked with critical thinking, and that we have too little of today. If you don’t ask questions like “what?” and “why?”, and instead simply accept the circumstances you’re in, then you also strip away important aspects of participating in society. Circumstances can and do change, and just accepting them means someone else will change it in your stead.

    Sure, sometimes you need to stay focused on solving the task at hand. Knowing the difference I’d argue is part of what critical thinking is about, which the world is in dire need of.

  5. problems were not here without any solution. There should always be one answer for it, no matter how big or small the problem is. always think on the positive side and you’ll see the solution is just always in front of you or just within your grasp.

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