In the first Blog in this Series, we emphasized the importance of developing the style and mindset of an effective problem solver. As a reminder, the following were explained:
- Being respectful
- Taking responsibility for one’s own emotions
- Addressing the needs and wants of the other person too
- Rigorous honesty
- Never taking anything personally
- Never making assumptions
In Blog 2 of this Series, we addressed how to define a problem that leads to a solution, including criteria to use when deciding if there really is a problem that needs to be solved.
In this Blog, we present a Six Step Procedure for solving problems, enabling you to become an expert problem solver. We will modify those Steps in Blog #4 for making joint decisions and in Blog #5 for raising and resolving concerns about something happening in the other home. These two types of problems require a moderately different approach.
Rules. Before defining the Six Step Procedure, based on research, we now know, in order for procedures to work, rules are required. In a business meeting, for example, a rule can be: that only one person speaks at a time and is not to be interrupted until that person is finished speaking. This is also the first of three other rules for problem-solving meetings with co-parents:
- Solve only one problem at a time. When a meeting is set up to solve a problem, that meeting should only focus on that one problem. Any discussion of a single problem often tempts people to bring up another problem about which they are reminded and often shifts the discussion to that problem. Soon, the people are arguing about seven or eight problems, and as a result, none of them get resolved. In our Six Step Procedure, if reminded of another problem, another problem-solving appointment needs to be made. One problem at a time!
- Participants should be respectful toward one another at all times. There are a lot of “don’ts” in such a rule (e.g., don’t call each other names, etc.), but most people know what being respectful means. Simply behave respectfully!
- Follow the Six Steps in order, starting with a clear statement as to who owns the problem. Why? Because the person who owns the problem is responsible for conducting the meeting and following the Steps. The other person is there to listen (except for Step 4) and to be cooperative- not to run the meeting.
As you will see, the problem of Julie being late bringing the children to Jim will be given as an example at the end of each Step.
The Six Step Procedure for Solving Problems
1. Make an appointment. The person who owns the problem never starts by bringing up the problem. You have no idea if the other person is ready and able to give the problem the attention it needs. He or she might be waiting for a phone call, or have to leave in ten minutes, or even be tired or upset about something else. If you can estimate the time the meeting will take, include that in your meeting invite. If you are guessing, limit the appointment time to 30 minutes, and if more time is needed, you can make another appointment. Do not state what the problem is ahead of time; save that for the meeting.
E.g., Jim sets up a telephone or in-person meeting with Julie.
2. Define the problem. At the meeting, after a friendly greeting, the person who owns the problem defines or describes the problem. The problem must be stated in clear and concrete words, including that the problem is a pattern, all without vague and ambiguous terms.
E.g., Jim, “I have a problem. Almost every time you bring the kids to me, you are late. Often, it is just a little late, which I can deal with, but sometimes you are very late. I never know how late you might be.”
Note: in this Step, only the parent who owns the problem is speaking. Note also that framing the problem is critical in getting to a solution. Jim frames the problem as his, not Julie having a problem being on time.
3. Describe why this problem needs solving: what is the harm? The person who owns the problem says what the harm is, or might be, if the problem does not get solved. Just not liking something, when there is no harm, is not a problem that needs to be solved. Jim describes the problem following the three criteria in Blog 2.
E.g., Jim, “There have been several times that you were so late, and my plans for the children were disrupted. Last week, I had tickets to the theater for a Christmas show, and we had to miss it. The kids knew and were very upset, and I lost the money.”
4. The co-parent provides information and a response. In this Step, for the first and only time, the person who owns the problem now becomes the listener. Note: This is a dangerous Step because the co-parent, Julie, might try to steal the problem from the one who owns it, or worse, the one who owns it might give it away to the co-parent. In this Step, the co-parent just provides the one who owns the problem any information he or she has about the problem, in a response.
Another danger at this Step is the risk of an emotional reaction to the statement of a problem. Julie likely has a long history of being late and dealing with negative reactions. She might have really tried to be on time and failing might have a great deal of guilt or even self-hatred. These emotional reactions have nothing to do with problem solving in a co-parenting relationship.
E.g. Julie, “You have asked me to be on time, and I try. I have been working on being on time for years and have never been able to fix it. There is always so much to do in order to leave on time. But the kids are part of the problem too. I expect them to have clean rooms, laundry put away and whatever they are going to take be packed, but they are never ready to go on time.”
5. The person who owns the problem proposes a solution until one is accepted, but it must be one that the person CAN do. In Step 2, we discussed the importance of how the problem is framed, as being critical in getting to a solution. This is one important take-away. In this Step, it is equally important that the person who owns the problem proposes a solution which the co-parent can do. This is a second important take-away. The third take-away is that the proposal includes consideration of the information the co-parent shared in Step 4.
Note that Julie has been very helpful in providing information. She has difficulty organizing what needs to be done in time to leave and the children are part of the problem. They might be reluctant to leave their mother’s home. Julie might not be structured enough to get the children to be on time. This gives Jim a lot of information that he can take into consideration when developing proposals.
Here again the process is in danger of going off the tracks, because the other co-parent might try to hijack the problem by proposing a solution. It is essential that the proposed solution come from the owner of the problem. There are two reasons: first, the proposal of the other person is unlikely to work; and second, to solve your own problem(s) is very empowering and encouraging. However, it is important to include in your solution the information from the other person. This is a third important take-away. You cannot enter the process with a proposal already fixed in your mind. You can have some ideas, but if you do not include the information from the other person, you risk losing his/her cooperation, and you increase the likelihood that you will make a proposal that will not work.
This does not mean there is no dialogue. In fact, there will likely be dialogue: (2) The proposal is made. (2) The other person accepts the proposal if he or she can do what is being asked, OR (3) He or she rejects the proposal if he or she is unable (not unwilling) to do it. The other person should reject the proposal merely because he or she does not think it will work or because he or she has a better idea. Nor should it be rejected because he or she does not like it. The criterion is: Can he or she do it? If the proposal is rejected, there can be dialogue as to the reasons, and this is new information that can be considered by the owner of the problem- perhaps prompting another proposed solution.
For example, a proposal might have three parts. The other person might respond that he or she can do A and B, but not C. A new proposal can be made for C. This can be frustrating for the owner of the problem because he or she might think the first proposal is a good one. Remember: the goal is to get to a proposal that works. There are always many possible solutions to a problem. In other words, this process can (perhaps should) continue until there is an accepted proposal.
If the process gets stuck, take a break, it might work to talk with a friend for a new proposal or new ideas, and even take the risk of asking the other parent if he or she has a new idea, but don’t give away the problem.
E.g., Jim, “Let’s switch the driving. I will pick the kids up for my time with them, and you can pick them up for your time. That way, my plans won’t be disrupted, and if I have the kids, I won’t care if you are late.”
Julie, “Okay, that works for me, but what are you going to do if you get there and the kids aren’t ready?
Jim, “I will take responsibility for teaching them to be ready. That will become my problem.”
Julie, “When will this start?”
Jim, “Next Thursday when I pick them up.”
In this Example, Jim can control when he gets the children and is indifferent to her being late when he has the children. Incidentally, this also gives Jim the opportunity to teach the children how to be on time, that is, ready for him to pick them up, taking into consideration that Julie is having difficulty with this.
6. Recap. The last Step is a Recap. During any problem solving process, much might have been discussed. Now it is up to the owner of the problem to recap, paying special attention to recapping the agreed-upon solution. Otherwise, the owner of the problem and the other person might walk away from the meeting thinking they have a solution, but remember it very differently. By recapping, both parents know what is the agreed- upon solution.
The Six Step Procedure for solving problems is:
- The “owner” makes an appointment.
- The “owner” defines the problem.
- The “owner” describes why this problem needs solving.
- The co-parent provides information and a response.
- The person who owns the problem proposes a solution until one is accepted, but it must be one that the person CAN do.
- The person who owns the problem recaps, especially the solution.
In the next two Blogs, we will provide modifications for making joint decisions and resolving concerns. Like any other skill, this procedure takes practice. It might be a good idea to have a list of the Six Step Procedures for yourself and your co-parent to follow.