Written by Dr Kate Beaven-Marks
There are many occasions where helping a client improve their problem-solving strategies can have benefits, not just for their presenting issue, but positively influencing many other aspects of their life. Issues with psychological or physiological symptoms can benefit, whether broad, such as anxiety or other more specific concerns, such as mental health concerns, financial worries, relationship issues, health anxieties and work-related worries.
Rather than related or unrelated problems potentially adding to a client’s level of disturbance, they can learn how to take a logical, systematic approach to solving their problems. This can offer structure and boost self-confidence, as they use problem-solving techniques and gain a range of strategies to apply in response to ‘challenges’. Indeed, rather than visit a therapist every time they get ‘stuck’, the client becomes empowered and learns to take emotional responsibility. This can also lead to a more engaged client in future session work.
A therapy client will generally have one or more problems that they wish to address during their visit. Whilst a therapist will work with the client to formulate a treatment plan and address the client’s issues, the client may not learn much about how to manage future problems on their own. From a cognitive perspective, ‘problem-solving’ is a mental process, moving from recognition of a problem, through to assessing the issue and analysing options, leading to a resulting action, which may include solving the problem and achieving the desired outcome, often considered to be the ‘goal’.
Whilst we start to develop our problem-solving skills in childhood, problem-solving can be thought of as a life skill, whether it is deciding which car to buy next, or whether one supermarket is better value this month than another. If during the development of this skill a faulty understanding or strategy develops, or the client has cognitive biases or cognitive distortions, then the individual may find it difficult to achieve a positive outcome in the way they desire.
The problem-solving process and strategies employed
Problem-solving processes can be impaired at any point throughout the process, or even at several points.
Some clients have, over time, developed and employ a strategy of heuristics; a mental rule-of-thumb type of shortcut, simplifying what they perceive as complex problems to create a manageable number of ‘good-enough’ solutions. However, whilst this may be a helpful rule, it could be unhelpful, particularly if the client’s approach is influenced by cognitive biases (systematic thinking errors), or if the client has an inflexible mindset, making it more difficult to consider creative solutions.
Another strategy that clients may have adopted is ‘trial and error’. Rather than taking an evaluative approach, they may ‘have a go’ and then keep trying different approaches until one works. This may remind you of the type of person who gets self-assembly furniture and has a go at assembling it without looking at the instructions and if it doesn’t look right, they will take it apart and have another go. This type of strategy can be tiring, and there can be negative influences, in that most of what they tried didn’t work, only one way did.
The application of logic
A client may have faulty thinking processes at any point in their problem-solving approach, even at multiple points. A logical approach to a problem involves a logical chain of decisions through to an acceptable solution. A popular logic strategy that can be taught to clients, and has stood the test of time (since the 1960s) comes from Edgar Schein, a key figure in the field of organizational development. It has eight steps. A running example is given below using performance anxiety), together with common pitfalls.
1. Define what the problem is (e.g. performance anxiety when giving a presentation). Some clients may struggle with defining the problem succinctly or have a faulty perception of its significance. They may also find it difficult to even label or define something as a problem. Furthermore, a client may be unhelpfully influenced by past memories that feed into the problem. Role play examples can help here and can help a client develop beneficial skills. However, it may also be necessary to explore any blocking or intrusive memories from their past that are relevant.
2. Compile information about the problem (e.g. intrusive thoughts prior to presentation, physical symptoms during presentation). Clients may be presently using an avoidant strategy and may need coaxing to learn to face the problem to gain information and insight, so that they can address it. Clients may also have weak abilities in evaluating information, perhaps placing too much significance on irrelevant information or becoming side-tracked by misleading information. To help address these potential pitfalls, clients may benefit from practice, both in the therapy setting and as homework, to start to be able to identify the key components of the issue and also consider any relevant information that could be applied to this issue.
3. Consider the root cause of the information gathered (e.g. past negative performance at school). At this stage, the client may be reluctant to revisit past negative experiences. Teaching them how to do this from a dissociated perspective can be helpful. Also, some clients initially struggle with applying an analytical mindset to what is perceived as an emotional problem. Role play activities (and future pacing) can help a client learn and develop useful skills that they can also apply in other areas of their life.
4. Generate a range of solutions (e.g. avoid / push on / address the issue). A client may struggle with flexible thinking and even a reluctance to view a problem in any way other than one fixed way, leading to a narrow range of solutions. With help, a client can develop the flexibility to explore different, flexible and creative potentials and possibilities. Also, some clients may not understand SMART goals and, as a result, might not initially connect particularly to the formulation of realistic and achievable goals; instead focusing on ‘ideal world’, rather than ‘real world’. Teaching a client the concepts within SMART goal formulation can be helpful here and enable a client to develop an awareness of the range from ‘super plain and simple’ through to ‘highly creative’ yet all still workable. It can also be beneficial to take a ‘real-world’ approach, recognising that there may be obstacles to possible solutions and considering ways of overcoming those obstacles if it is appropriate to do so.
5.Select the optimal solution that addresses the root cause (e.g. thought-stopping and desensitise anxiety). Clients can present with a fear of making decisions. Time may be taken within the session to address these fears, whether from a behavioural (change habit), cognitive (change thoughts/beliefs) or analytical (gain insight into fear) perspective.
6. Plan how to implement the optimal solution (e.g. therapy session). Teaching a client SMART goal formulation (see step 4) can also help a client apply a systematic approach to their planning. Without that information, it’s difficult to know in which direction to plan your therapy approach.
7. Put the plan into action and test (e.g. engage in therapy work and then give a performance). At times, a therapist may work with a client to help them become more comfortable with uncertainty. Whilst a client who is more ‘external’ in their Locus of Control may find this easier, a client who is highly ‘internal’ may struggle with the potential of it not being 100% ideal from the start. Ego strengthening and desensitisation of anxiety can be particularly helpful here.
8. Check the solution has been implemented (e.g. is outcome satisfactory or is there any further work needed). Finally, an insecure client may be reluctant to check their planning and change work has been successful. Helping a client gain a mindset that incorporates the concept that ‘there is no failure, only feedback’, can be useful. As can ego strengthening and work to develop the client’s resilience and self-confidence.
Ultimately, by helping a client to develop beneficial thinking strategies towards problem solving, the therapist helps the client develop both practical skills that can be applied to future challenges, but also helps boost a client’s resilience and enables them to develop emotional responsibility and greater self-confidence.
If you’d like to learn how to help clients solve problems using hypnotherapy, or you’d like to optimise your existing therapy process, join us on our upcoming Hypnotherapy Diploma Course.
We hope that this blog about helping therapy clients develop problem-solving strategies has been helpful. If you have any questions about this topic or anything else for that matter, do please get in touch, because we’re always happy to help!
– written by Dr Kate Beaven-Marks