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  • Two people were studying in a small, stuffy room in a university library. One person wanted the window open, one person wanted it closed. Instead of focusing on solutions, (whether the window would be opened or closed) they concentrated on needs and resolved the problem by coming up with another alternative- opening a window in the next room. This provided fresh air for the person who wanted it and, at the same time, prevented the north wind from blowing directly on the person who objected to being in a strong draft.

    Is it really possible to craft a win/win method of solving many of the most entrenched interpersonal issues we face? Can we be released from….?

    win/lose                       CAPITULATION and DOMINATION?

    mini-lose/mini-lose   COMPROMISE?

    lose/lose                        DENIAL and AVOIDANCE?

    Collaborative problem solving requires the use of listening skills, assertion skills, and the 1-2-3 dialogue or conflict resolution method. Let’s go through the six-step process step by step. Pay attention to the common pitfalls of using this method!

    Step 1: Define the problem in terms of needs, not solutions

    • To discover needs, try to find out why the person wants the solution they initially proposed. Once you understand the advantages that solution has for them, you have discovered their “need”
    • Use this method when there is a conflict of tangible needs. For a conflict of values, there are other ways of solving conflict.
    • Common Pitfall: Handle the emotions first! Refer to part III and IV of my previous posts on listening and the 1-2-3 dialogue.


    Step 2: Brainstorm possible solutions

    • Try for quantity, not quality. Seasoned brainstormers know many of the proposals will be weeded out in the end
    • Don’t evaluate the need. Nobody says “no”, that will never work”, that is dumb”, “that is terrific”…etc.
    • Don’t clarify or seek clarification, this will slow down the generation of ideas
    • Go for zany ideas and out of the box thinking, which can help foster greater creativity
    • Expand on each other’s ideas
    • List every idea without attaching people’s names or listing them separately

    Step 3: Select the solution or combination of solutions that meet both parties’ needs

    • Clarify a solution if needed, but don’t evaluate it
    • Don’t eliminate solutions one by one, ask the parties for which solutions are favored
    • State what looks best to you and see what overlaps
    • Use consensus as a decision making guideline
    • Common Pitfall: It can be hard to reach a consensus if some of the steps are not done correctly. Try again. Assert your needs clearly and succinctly. Listen long and hard until you have discovered the other person’s need and then brainstorm freely. Sometimes adequate progress can’t be made because of an underlying emotional barrier. If this seems to be the case, offer a door opener like, “Seems like something is hanging us up. Is there something else in our relationship we should talk about first?” Sometimes, the other person will say, “No, nothing is wrong”- and then will gradually spell out the problem.

    Step 4: Plan who will do what, where, and by when

    • Take time to figure out the nitty gritty
    • Write out the agreement

    Step 5: Implement the Plan

    • Complete action items on schedule
    • When agreements are not lived up to, even when made with great sincerity, use assertion messages, followed by reflective listening
    • Common Pitfall: Not following up to see the action items are carried out. Lack of follow through doesn’t necessarily mean the other person doesn’t care about you or about the agreed upon solution. Set and use realistic checkpoints to evaluate the process.

    Step 6: Evaluate the problem-solving process and, at a later date, how well the solution turned out

    • Before you start implementing the plan, take a few minutes to review the experience of the process.
      • How did you feel about the process in general
      • What you liked most and least
      • Something that bothered each of the participants
      • Something you wish you hadn’t done or said
      • What you can do better next time
    • Set a time to see how well the solution is working. Some action plans don’t stand the test of time, either in total or in part and may need to be edited or a new action plan made. If it is working well, why not celebrate having worked through a difficult issue with success?

     The methods you have learned through this series have many uses: at home, at school, and at work. They can be used in goal setting, as a supplement to listening at a certain stage in helping relationships, in rule setting, and in individual problem solving, among others.

     The time you spend learning how to communicate toxin –free is time repaid many times over!

     “When you fail to use your creative, problem-solving talent, you strike at the quality of your own life.” –George Prince

     The following was excerpted in part from People Skills: How to assert yourself, listen to others, and resolve conflicts by: Robert Bolton, Ph.D. This is the final article in a five part series about clean living through toxin-free communication. To read Part I about Nonviolent Communication, click here. To read Part II about Emotional Liberation, click here. To read Part III about Listening, click here. To read Part IV about the 1-2-3 Dialogue: Handling Emotions in a Conflict, click here.

    Aline Bethea Defiglia LCSW, MPH, CADC  is a licensed psychotherapist, life and career coach, trainer and consultant practicing in Chicago and Elmhurst, Illinois.  You can find out more at abwellness.life