In this Series, we explain how to become an “expert” problem solver, not only in a co-parenting relationship but also in any situation. However, the examples that we will give are typical co-parenting situations because that is our intended audience. We are defining problems broadly to include:
- A problem that one parent is having with the other parent
- A problem that a child is facing that can be best solved if both parents participate
- A problem with others (e.g., extended family members) that is disrupting the co-parenting relationship
- A scheduling conflict
- A decision that has to be made on behalf of the children and about which the parents disagree
- A concern about something that is happening in the other home
In problem solving, there is a Mindset, and there are Techniques. In this Blog, we will focus mostly on the Mindset. There are going to be six Blogs in this Series, titled:
- Problem solving style and Toltec wisdom
- Defining a problem
- Problem solving steps
- Modified steps for making decisions
- Modified steps for resolving a concern
- Putting it all together
Problem solving style refers to the general approach that the problem solver takes. Our first point is that all problem solving is a negotiation process. Research on negotiation style, beginning in the early 1990’s, found that the most effective negotiators (problem solvers) were respectful of the other person, listened to the other person’s information, perspective and goals and tried for solutions that worked for both people. Hardball, disrespectful, selfish problem solvers are generally ineffective, even in accomplishing a solution that is best for themselves. This is particularly true for people problem solving with someone with whom they will have a continuing relationship. One goal in problem solving in a co-parenting relationship is that both parents will feel better about the co-parenting relationship after the negotiation than before.
A second point has to do with emotions. All relationships include interactions that stir up emotional reactions- some positive and some negative. In a marriage, spouses have some responsibility for each other’s feelings. This is part of the dependency of intimate relationships. Spouses assume some responsibility for helping their mate find happiness and some responsibility to help resolve conflict, anger, fear and insecurity in the marriage. However, after a separation, the intimacy goes away, and therefore so does the responsibility for each other’s emotional states. Expecting a co-parent to apologize or “change” to make you feel better is likely to lead to more emotional distress rather than resolution.
An important step in becoming an expert problem solver is not to expect the other parent to take responsibility for your feelings. The practical meaning of this is that a co-parent should not approach solving a problem expressing emotional distress, such as anger, and expect the other co-parent to do something to make the parent feel better. If upset or angry, is better to go blow off steam with a friend or take a long walk. Emotions have no place in effective problem solving, especially for the problem solver. It is important for the parent to take responsibility for resolving his or her own emotions.
In summary, an effective problem solver has a style that is respectful, focused on the problem, not the emotions, and looks for solutions that work well for both people.
Toltec wisdom has been handed down for generations. It is simple and powerful in improving people’s internal emotional states and the quality of all of their relationships. It is another facet of a problem solving style that will positively affect outcomes. Three ingredients of Toltec Wisdom apply to problem solving:
- Rigorous honesty
- Never take anything personally
- Never make assumptions
Let us unpack each of these ingredients:
Rigorous Honesty is just what it sounds like, but has a couple of subtle implications. We all know that an outright lie is not rigorous honesty, but not everything we can say that is not honest is an outright lie. We can give half-truths, leaving out something, that creates a different impression than what was really true. For example, a person is late and says that there was a lot of traffic. There might well have been lots of traffic, but the person left out that they left later than they should have. An honest statement might have been, “I’m sorry for being late. I left later than I should have.” We can give circumstances a spin that is true, but misleading. For example, a father calls the mother a name, and when the mother reacts, the father says, “I was just trying to show you what it’s like when you call me names.” An honest response is, “I am sorry. I was partly trying to show you how it feels, but also wanted to hurt you.”
Rigorous honesty is critical in effective problem solving for two reasons:
One reason is that honest information shared by two people is essential to understanding the problem that is being addressed. In the last example in the prior paragraph, for example, an important part of the problem is that the two parents want to hurt each other, at least at times. That needs a solution, as well as how they speak to one another.
The second reason honesty is important is so people know they are dealing with an honest person. You can get away with dishonesty once or twice, but not with a pattern of dishonesty. People are much more willing to problem solve with an honest person than with a liar.
In a prior Blog in the Skill Building Series, we addressed the importance of Never Taking Criticism Personally (Skill #1). The basic point is that when another person is criticizing or denigrating us, it is really a reflection of who that person is and how they deal with their thoughts and emotions. It is not about us. In that Blog, we point out that we should always listen for important information when being criticized, but not take it personally. This takes a great deal of practice (and discipline), but once accomplished, it changes the whole process of interaction. The parent who masters this is at peace when dealing with the other parent, and the other parent gets no reaction and therefore no reward for the behavior. Problem solving can become the focus rather than an emotional tit-for-tat.
Finally, Never Make Assumptions. An assumption is when we believe an inference, and an inference is just a guess. When parents who do not get along make guesses about each other, they are likely wrong. They will likely build on those inferences, which will lead to negative beliefs and a disaster. Problem solving when you have false beliefs about the other person is doomed to fail.
For example, a mother gets angry at the father for taking their child to a movie, to which the mother wanted to take the child. She assumed that he did it just to ruin her weekend. Her definition of the problem is that the father does things just to ruin her time with the child. If she did not make assumption, she could ask the father why he took their son to the movie. Doing this, the definition of the problem might become that they do not let each other know about any weekend plans that might disrupt each other’s plans. Now, this is an easy problem to solve.
Sometimes guesses are right. In the example above, what if it is true that the father deliberately ruined the mother’s plan to go to the movie? The mother asks the father, being rigorously honest, he tells her that he knew she wanted to take their son to the movie and he took him out of anger at the mother. Then the problem is how to avoid letting emotions be the basis of action, because that can be hurtful to the child. Avoiding making assumptions, that is, believing guesses, helps to define the correct problem. Remember, assumptions come from inferences (guesses). We all make inferences, and it is helpful to do so, but we have to be careful not to create beliefs based on inferences when there are clearly other guesses that could be made.
The reason these three Toltec Wisdoms affect a person’s emotional state so strongly is because all three greatly reduce internal stress. By being honest, you know that you only have to tell the truth, never have to lie of cover up a lie, and never have the stress of people knowing that you lie and treating you as not-to-be-trusted. When you never take anything personally, you do not have negative reactions to people nor do you have the troubled relationships dominated by anger, defensiveness and emotional pain. By avoiding making assumptions, you keep yourself in reality, which is much less stressful than developing unsupported negative beliefs.
Six Behaviors re: Mindset and Style to Become an Effective Problem Solver
- Being respectful
- Taking responsibility for one’s own emotions
- Addressing the needs and wants of the other person too
- Rigorous honesty
- Never taking criticisms personally
- Never making assumptions
These are the six behaviors required to become an effective problem solver. By practicing these six behaviors, your mindset and problem-solving style can become very effective. In the next Blog in this Series, we address the first technique required for “expert” and effective problem solving: defining a problem in a way that leads to solutions.