Monday, November 1, 2010

Problem solving - Plan B- drilling down to ' quality' concerns/ concerns vs solutions

The first step in the collaborative problem solving process is the Empathy step.

We try to gather information about the child's concerns and perspectives and if necessary reassuring him that we are not interested in imposing our solution, we just want his input and hear his side of the story.

Kids may know what they want and wanted to do or what they did. These are not concerns, but rather solutions to concerns. Kids and adults often present their concerns in terms of solutions. We need to help them take a step back and reveal the underlying concern which then will open up many more possible solutions.

If a kid would want to play on the computer and you would prefer her to do her homework, we essentially have two solutions on the table. If we put these solutions on the table , we end up with negotiation or the dueling of solutions. If we go back a step and look at concerns, we may find that the kid has a problem with homework etc and being on the computer is her solution. Imho the brilliance of CPS is be able to distinguish between a solution and a concern and this opens up possibilities of many new solutions and not just a compromise.

Now kids are not very good at articulating their concerns or even figuring out what they are. In the past their concerns have been ignored and they have never been asked to articulate them. When you ask them why they did something, they may find it difficult to tell you. If you ask them what's bothering them, they most probably say ' I don't know , or offer reasons such as ' it's not fun or boring ' which maybe true but is not the real concern. There maybe more than one concern.

For this reason some approaches encourage parents or teachers to come up with solutions which ignore the child's concerns. Not only does this lead to low quality solutions, but the opportunity for learning and skills acquired during the CPS process are lost.

Besides the possibility of lacking language skills, or a kid simply says he does not know what to say, a kid may show difficulty in expressing his concerns because the unsolved problem we are trying to work on may be too vague so kids are not exactly sure what we are trying to gather information about.

We can help the kid by making tentative suggestions or asking questions. Generally open ended questions, not the ones which lead to a yes/no answer are preferred because they promote conversation and dialog. So statements like ' can you tell me more ' or how do you feel about ' etc should provide more information. For some kids this is difficult so it is better to start out with short yes/no questions and take it from there. We need to try and keep the conversation going and drill down until we get a clear idea of what the child's concerns are. We should try to end our statements with a question. Questions like – why, when, over what, with whom, what happened before or after , where help us get more input from the child.

Drilling Down


The more we help folks troubleshoot their attempts at using our approach the more we find that success often rests on how much “drilling down” they have been able to do with the respective concerns to be addressed. As we like to say, “low quality concerns lead to low quality solutions!” When we refer to the “quality” of concerns, what we mean is how specific they are. The more specific the better.

As a clinician helping to facilitate Plan B your role will often involve asking the probing questions and doing the detective work necessary to get to the bottom of what someone’s concerns are – all the while resisting the temptation to jump into solution mode until the problem is well defined. So how do you know when you’ve gotten specific enough? We have a pretty simple litmus test actually: imagine using that concern as a jumping off point for brainstorming potential solutions. If you are finding it hard to envision any potential solutions and it seems like you will staring at a dead end, chances are the concerns need to be clarified. Here’s an example:

Child’s concern: I don’t see why I can’t go out on week nights with my friends.

Parents’ concern: We don’t think it’s appropriate for him to be going out on school nights and socializing.

Now let’s use our litmus test and see how those concerns might look when it comes to the invitation to brainstorm solutions together:

I wonder if there’s a way for you to go out on week nights without it being inappropriate in your parents' eyes …?

Ouch. That sounds like a dead-end! Plan B will be stuck in the mud for sure. Now let’s say we had done the hard (but well worth it) work of drilling down to get very specific about people’s concerns. How does one do that? By asking lots of questions – like how and why? We often find ourselves repeating the mantra: “I’m just trying to make sure I understand.” In this example, one might ask: Why do you want to go out on weekdays? What do you want to do? With whom? Etc. All the while providing reassurance that you are just getting information and not saying no (or yes for that matter!). Similarly, you would ask the parents: Why do you think it’s inappropriate? Again providing reassurance that you don’t disagree (or agree for that matter!), but that you are just trying to understand.

Child’s concern: Sometimes there’s something fun going on during the week that I don’t want to miss out on – like a baseball game or something that all my friends get to go to.

Parents’ concern: We’re concerned about your homework and studying getting done, and we also would like to be able to spend some time with you since we barely see you on weekends anymore.

Now let’s re-try our litmus test to see how the invitation might look with these more specific concerns on the table:

I wonder if there’s a way for you to not miss out on things your friends are doing during the week but still make sure your work gets done and that your parents also have some time with you at home.

This is now sounding much more promising, right? So we would encourage you to imagine what the invitation might look like when you are in the process of defining the problem. If you see a dead-end ahead still, keeping clarifying those concerns! Once you think you have gotten specific enough, then (and only then!) is it time to ask for ideas. Good luck!

Here is an example of drilling down in a school environment

Here is the collaborative problem solving Plan B cheat sheet – helpful with the drilling down process.

I want to end off by repeating what I consider one of my most important messages to parents or teachers. Our greatest tool is simply talking with our kids or rather we listening and they speaking , we directing the conversation with dialog questions helping them to take perspectives , articulate concerns and brainstorm solutions which are realistic and mutually satisfactory. We can talk about general stuff , other peoples experiences and problems which are less emotive and easier to externalize and visualize.


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