Quick guide to effective problem solving

DBT-C, English, Supersensers / By Francheska Perepletchikova

When my clients ask me for some advice on how to solve a problem, my first reply is almost always: “I do not know. What’s the goal?” Decision making is actually a four-step process: 1) identify a goal; 2) acknowledge a competing goal; 3) select a priority and 4) accept that a competing goal will not be met.

Step 1 – what is the goal?

One of the main mistakes that we make when facing a challenge is to immediately start identifying a solution. However, we are failing to recognize that each challenge comes with an infinite number of possible associated goals. So, before thinking about solutions, we first need to ask ourselves a question – “what’s the goal?” Otherwise, we are at risk of a random solution generation and attempting to meet multiple goals at the same time. This is like trying to ride two horses at the same time.

Step 2 – what is a competing goal?

What we are usually attempting to do is not just only ride two horses at the same time, but indeed two horses that are moving in different directions. Identification of a goal is necessary but not sufficient, as everything has two sides. The 2nd Law of Dialectics “Everything contains its own opposite” stipulates that everything has a self-contradictory character. These sides are not the same or equal but complimentary, as they diametrically oppose each other. Such as day/night, life/death, good/bad, white/black, ying/yang, man/woman, etc. And each side has an associated goal. Since these sides are diametrically opposite, the associated goals are always competing. Thus, we need to remember that for every selected goal, there will be a competing goal. 

Step 3 – what is a priority?

Since obviously riding two horses moving in opposite directions is a trick that even a circus performer cannot accomplish, after we identify a goal and acknowledge a competing goal, we need to select a priority. We frequently fail to do this step but instead engage in an insanity of trying to get everything at the same time, exemplified by an English proverb “to have the cake and eat it too”, which means that we cannot simultaneously continue to retain a possession of a cake and consume it. Yes, we need to think outside the box, consider what is being left out, and appreciate different perspectives to reduce the risk of one-sided, rigid decision making, that can only get us stuck. Still, after acknowledging both sides, we can only step forward in one direction.

Step 4 – what is the price?

After we select a priority, we need to accept that we will not be able to meet the competing goal. This will be our payment for attaining our priority. Everything has a price. Accepting that we cannot have it all allows for better flexibility and helps avoid disappointments. 

Just bringing into our conscious awareness information about different goals and selecting a priority, followed by acceptance, increases chances of effective problems solving, as we are gaining a freedom of choice and are more likely to select a Wise Mind choice over an Emotion Mind choice.

Example 1. A child complains that he keeps having problems with friends during play dates: 1) goal – I want for my friends to play with me, 2) competing goal – I want to play the games of my choice, 3) priority – to improve relationships, and 4) acceptance – I will need to play the games of their choice.

Example 2. A child, who is suffering from emotional dysregulation and is engaging in self-harm, is spending a lot of time on his computer. Parents want to decrease computer time and increase time the child spends with his family. However, more computer time is the main motivator for that the child to agree to practice coping skills: 1) goal – to decrease computer time, 2) competing goal – to motivate child’s skills practice, 3) priority – to encourage skills practice with more time on devices to decrease self-harm behavior, and 4) acceptance – more time on devices will be offered until behavior stabilizes.

Further, effective problem solving (just as anything else in our life) requires maintaining dialectical balance, where one side is stable, and the other side is flexible. On the stable side, we have 1) a precise definition of our priority goal, 2) selection of means to achieve this goal, and 3) having an ability to skillfully apply means to the goal. On the flexible side, we have – the non-attachment to outcome. 

For the stable side, in the above discussed Example 1 of a child dealing with interpersonal difficulties, a child has 1) a priority goal of improving relationships, 2) needs to learn social skills of negotiation, radical acceptance, DEAR FRIEND skill, etc. and 3) needs to gain an ability to apply these techniques skillfully through reinforced practice with parents. In Example 2, parents have 1) a priority goal of motivating their child’s skills use with computer time, 2) teach emotion regulation skills to their child, followed by everyday practice in hypothetical situations to increase the child’s capacity to use skills during the real life stressful events, and 3) acquire own capacity to use emotion regulation, so they can model these skills, teach them effectively and continue to refine their child’s use of techniques.

For the flexible side, after we define goal precisely, before we start attaining it, we need to accept that the outcome will not match our picture. This is an example of a paradox, which is the only norm of our existence. The outcome may be close to what we have planned, may only partially meet our expectations or maybe the complete opposite to our original goal. Life never precisely matches what we want, when we want it, in which sequence, with whom, and how. So, acceptance needs to happen twice: 1) before we start moving towards our goal, and 2) when the outcome is achieved, and it is not exactly what we expected.

Following the non-attachment to outcome principle decreases the probability of rigidly following our original plan, as well as being constantly disappointed. This way we can flow through life like a river. A river never has a predetermined course. It goes over the rocks, under the rocks, through the cracks. Attachment to outcome only puts us in a position to constantly trip over the rocks of our rigid expectations and attempt to force through closed doors. 

The non-attachment to outcome is a wonderful principle to uphold to flow though out life like a river. However, knowing what to do is necessary but not sufficient. We also need to gain the capacity to do it. Our next discussion will detail ways to attain the capacity for the non-attachment to outcome, as otherwise it will continue to remain just an interesting concept.


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