Lesson 2 of 7 - learn to communicate effectively

Overview - Win-win
Problem-solving Skill

Practice 8 steps

By Peter K. Gerlach, MSW
Member NSRC Experts Council


The Web address of this article is http://sfhelp.org/cx/skills/ps.htm

Updated  December 16, 2014

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        This is one of a series of articles in Lesson-2 - learn communication basics and seven powerful skills to get more daily needs met more often. Progress with this Lesson depends on progress on Lesson 1 - free your true Self to guide your personality in calm and conflictual times. This article overviews the vital skill of  effective (win-win) problem-solving.

        This brief video clip outlines what you'll find in this article:

        This article assumes you're familiar with...

  • the intro to this nonprofit Web site and the premises underlying it

  • self-improvement Lessons 1 and 2

  • options for analyzing and solving relationship problems

  • common communication blocks

      Pause and reflect - why are you reading this? what do you need?


      How do you define "a (social)  problem," and how many "problems" are you faced with in an average day? How effective are you at "solving" them? From one (I am never effective at problem-solving) to ten (I'm consistently effective at problem solving), how do you rate your recent effectiveness? ___ Keep this in mind as you read. Option - also identify and keep in mind a person you feel is a very effective conflict or problem-solver.

       See how you feel about these premises...

  • human needs are dynamic physical, emotional, and spiritual discomforts. They range between minor to intense, surface to primary, and local to long-term.

  • All personal and interpersonal "problems" are unfilled needs.

  • Conflicts are needs that clash ("I need to talk, and you need to sleep."), and...

  • All behavior - including communication - aims to fill (satisfy) each person's current conscious and unconscious needs.

      From this view, "problem-solving skill" is an intentional communication process within and between people seeking to fill their respective needs. This learnable skill can also be called conflict resolution when personal and/or social needs clash. This skill requires (a) knowledge of communication basics (b) fluency in six other communication skills, and (c) each person to be guided by their true Self.

        Effective problem solving occurs when (a) each person gets their current primary needs met well enough (in their opinion), (b) in a way that feels "good enough" to all people involved.

This is most likely if all people involved believe that...

  • meeting all partners' current primary needs (vs. mine or yours) is the common goal; and that...

  • this shared communication process (a) is the best available option, and (b) probably will succeed well enough for everyone involved.

        Popular alternatives to effective problem-solving are...

























      See any favorites? Do they usually reduce your and your partner's discomforts well enough? These behaviors are common because average people (a) have significant psychological wounds and don't (want to) know it, and (b) have never learned communication basics and skills. Both factors can be intentionally reduced, once they're understood and accepted! 

        Note that the communication basics and skills apply to relations among your busy personality subselves, as well as to the adults and kids in your life.

        What might your life feel like if you doubled the effectiveness of your internal communication and problem solving? You really can learn to do this, using the ideas in Lesson 1 and Lesson 2 here!

        Think of a recent interpersonal problem or conflict, and how you responded to it. Compare your normal way of problem-solving with the framework that follows.

  Problem-solving Steps

       Here's an overview - details follow:

  • See if your true Self is guiding your personality. If not, lower your expectations.

  • Acknowledge (vs. deny) that you have a problem (unmet needs)

  • Use awareness and dig-down skills to identify your and any partner's current primary needs

  • Decide if you have an internal conflict, and interpersonal conflict, or both. Resolve internal conflicts (among your subselves) first;

  • Use awareness skill to check your attitude and focus (past, present, or future),

  • Ask your partner to problem-solve, and reduce any distractions

  • Confirm that (a) each person understands their own needs and each other person's needs; and that (b) each of you has a mutual-respect attitudes (our needs are equally important, except in an emergency)

  • Decide together if your conflict is (a) internal, (b) abstract (e.g. I need security) or concrete (e.g. I need a new vehicle), and/or (c) a current communication-needs clash. Then set your problem-solving goals accordingly: 

  • Option - If thus process works weill for you, appreciate yourself ansd each other - an possible review w3hy it worked well to reinforce your awareness.

More Detail

        Note: these steps may seem complex and detailed at first. I assure you - as with any new skill, if you patiently experiment with and practice your version of these steps, they'll become automatic and effortless!

Step 1)  Check to see if your true Self is guiding your personality in all situations, not just problem solving. If a false self controls you, work toward an effective strategy to free your Self to guide you. Use Lesson 1 resources to do this. Also commit to growing proficient at these seven communication skills.

Step 2)  Acknowledge honestly that you have a conflict (need-clash) (a) within yourself and/or (b) with your partner/s; without excessive guilt, anxiety, or shame. Alternatives:

  • repress, deny, defer, minimize, self-distract, rationalize, and/or avoid the  current need or conflict; and/or...

  • acknowledge the conflict, and give the responsibility of resolving it to someone else (i.e. "expect a miracle", or adopt a martyr or victim stance);

Step 3)  Use awareness skill to do E(motion)-level, attitude, focus, and time checks. If...

  • No one's E-level is "above their ears" (so they can't hear well); and...

  • all people involved seem to feel "We're mutually-respectful teammates now (vs. opponents)," and ...

  • everyone expects win-win problem-solving to fill your respective needs well enough, and ...

  • you each can maintain a stable two-person awareness bubble, and...

  • everyone wants to set aside enough undistracted time right now (e.g. 15" - 30" or more);...

...then go ahead. Otherwise...

  • use respectful empathic listening to bring E(motion)-levels down below the ears, and/or...

  • make achieving mutual-respect attitudes your first shared problem-solving goal, and/or...

  • mutually agree on a block of undistracted time in the near future to problem-solve together.

 Step 4)  Agree (out loud, at first) to problem-solve together. Note and reduce or eliminate any major emotional or physical distractions with awareness and metatalk;

        Recall - these are steps to resolve personal and interpersonal problems effectively.

Step 5) Use awareness, clear thinking, metatalk, empathic listening, and assertion skills cooperatively to dig down below your surface needs to identify the primary discomforts (needs) motivating each of you now.

       For instance, "I need the car at 3:30" is a surface need. The underlying primary need is "I need security: i.e. assurance that I have a reliable, convenient-enough way to (a) make my 3:30 dental appointment across town on time, and then (b) return here no later than 5:45." If discovering your primary needs evokes strong reactions like shame, guilt, anxiety, or resentment, acknowledge the feelings honestly - vs. pretend, collapse, flee, or other.

       This primary-need-discovery step takes time and patience! Shortcutting this step in important situations steeply raises the odds someone won't get their underlying needs met, and will then lose confidence and interest in this problem-solving framework. Help each other develop your dig-down skills!

Step 6)  Use awareness, assertion, and empathic listening, to confirm that each person (a) understands their and their partner's primary needs clearly, and (b) values everyone's needs equally now (shares mutual-respect attitudes). Popular alternatives to this are...

  • mind-read your partner (assume you know their needs);

  • ignore someone's needs (Respect attitude: "I'm 1-up");

  • don't bother discriminating between surface and primary needs in important situations; and/or...

  • rush the process and look for a quick solution.

None of these is likely to fill everyone's primary needs, and the (surface) "problems" (needs) will return in some form.

Step 7)  Decide together if your conflict is (a) internal, (b) abstract or concrete, and/or (c) a current communication-needs clash. Then set your problem-solving goals accordingly:

If your clash is internal (among your active subselves) use the seven skills and some form of inner-family conflict resolution.

If your conflict is abstract (e.g. conflicting opinions or values, like "I like fish; you prefer red meat"), aim to compromise or agree to disagree without blame or shameTrying to persuade or convert your partner implies "My way is better - I'm 1-up here, and you’re 1-down." As a communication style, attempting such "persuasions" (do what I want) promotes resentment, frustration, and avoidances.

If you disagree over something concrete  - like both needing the car or checkbook at the same time, creatively brainstorm all possible solutions, no matter how weird. Nutty ideas can lead unexpectedly to win/win outcomes. This step is not a contest. It can be fun - even hilarious, if E(motion) levels are down, and nobody feels overly 1-down, pressured, insecure, or anxious.

If your present communication needs clash, use metatalk to acknowledge this (e.g. "I need to vent, and you seem too distracted to really listen to me now.") Then cooperatively focus all seven skills on aligning your respective communication needs within local limitations.

Typical interpersonal problems have elements of several or all four of these conflicts going on at once! This is why building awareness and metatalk skills is so vital to long-range relationship success!

Step 8)  Mutually pick the best-fit from your solution options and see if each partner is genuinely satisfied enough. If not, avoid blaming anyone. Recheck your attitudes and expectations (step 3), and consider recycling steps 3 > 7 if time and energy allow.

Option - If this problem-solving process works well-enough for everyone, appreciate yourselves and each other!. Option: explore why your process worked well together. If your process "sort of" succeeded - or didn't, help each other avoid self and mutual criticism. Work to agree on how to problem-solve differently the next time.

Make your steady communication-skill goal "progress, not perfection!"

+ + +

       How do these eight problem-solving steps compare with your current way of responding to personal and social conflict? How well do you and your partner/s resolve internal, abstract, concrete, and communication-need conflicts now? Consider that most people (like you?) have never been taught (a) communication basics, (b) these problem-solving steps, or (c) the other six communication skills.

        Do you believe that practicing these steps would eventually get more of your and your partners' needs met? Notice your self-talk now. Is there anything blocking your trying these seven related communication skills including this problem-solving framework?

     Pause and reflect: can you name any investment of energy and time (other than reducing significant psychological wounds) that would be more valuable to you and your family than strengthening your shared communication skills? Are you really motivated to do so now? Is your partner? What if you aren't?

     Learn communication basics, all seven skills, and more in the practical guidebook Satisfactions - 7 relationship skill you need to know (Xlibris.com, 2nd ed., 2010). It integrates all the key Lesson-2 Web articles and resources into a convenient reference book.


      This article offers perspective on human "problems" (unfilled needs). It describes common ineffective ways people try to resolve their social problems, and outlines 8 steps toward effective interpersonal problem-solving. These steps require (a) your true Self to guide you, (b) knowledge of communication basics, and (c) fluency in the other six communication skills described in Lesson 2.   

  Learn something about yourself with this 1-question anonymous poll.

      Pause, breathe, and reflect - why did you read this problem-solving summary? Did you get what you needed? If not, what do you need? Who's answering these questions - your wise, resident true Self (capital "S") or ''someone else''?

Next - learn about your current problem-solving style with this inventory, and then experiment with this problem-solving practice with a partner. Also consider mapping your usual conflict-resolution process with a key partner (mate, child, parent, friend, co-worker...). Do this to explore and help each other, not to shame, blame, or triumph.

       Overall, continue patiently studying and applying Lessons 1 and 2, and expect your satisfaction, security, and serenity to rise!.

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Updated  December 16, 2014