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Problem-Solving: Sometimes it Works, Sometimes it Doesn’t

by Al Siebert, PhD

Author of The Resiliency Advantage: Master Change, Thrive Under Pressure and Bounce Back From Setbacks (2006 Independent Publisher’s Best Self-Help book), and best seller The Survivor Personality: Why Some People Are Stronger, Smarter, and More Skillful at Handling Life’s Difficulties…and How You Can Be, Too.


Psychologists have lots of research evidence showing that problem-focused coping increases resiliency while emotion-focused coping impairs resiliency. This means that when faced with a setback, unexpected difficulty, or challenge, it is smart to focus outward on the challenges that must be handled. People who become emotional and make their feelings the focus of attention do not cope well with life’s challenges.

One afternoon in July, I was teaching a resiliency workshop for a national corporation at their training center near Chicago. It was a very hot afternoon. The outside temperature was over 90 degrees Fahrenheit. My classroom was on the sunny side of the building and very hot because the air conditioning unit in our room was not working. The participants and I had turned the thermostat on the wall down to 70 degrees, but the air conditioning unit, located under the window, did not respond.

One participant dramatically fanned himself with a piece of paper, with a look on his face that communicated that he was irritated by his discomfort. You’ve probably seen people who do this. They become irritated by any discomfort, and draw attention to themselves in ways that indicate that someone is not paying attention to their needs.

Meanwhile, a participant named Brian went over to the air conditioner. He lifted up a small panel on the top and looked down into the dim interior. It was an older unit, without clear markings. He saw a dusty black knob located near the bottom of the unit, about two feet down. He reached down and turned it. As soon as he did this, the air conditioner kicked on. Our room soon cooled down and we held the class in comfort.

At the first break we went to other classrooms on our floor to show other instructors how to cool down their sweltering rooms. None of them had problem-solved the air conditioning difficulty the way that Brian had done in my classroom. Brian had looked at the thermostat on the wall and at the air conditioner under the window and assumed that it was constructed so that most people could make it work. He assumed that he could figure out what to do, and took action to solve the problem.

It was a great opportunity for me to show my class a problem-solving attitude toward a real-life difficulty.

In some offices a few people are known as "drama queens." They have strong, attention getting, emotional reactions to minor incidents, are not resilient, and are sick more often.

Research shows that people who focus on solving their problems are the most resilient and are sick less often. Problem-focused coping starts with examining the situation to see what solutions may be possible, considering various actions that might be taken to cope with the situation, selecting the best choice, taking action, observing the effects of the action, quickly learning what is working or not working, and modifying your actions to get better results.

Some people attempt problem solving, but fall short of their purpose. A friend of mine who works at a counseling center told me about a man she is working with. He was sent to the center by a judge who wanted to see if the center could help the man develop coping skills.

According to my friend, the man had lost his job and couldn’t find a new one. When his unemployment benefits ran out he couldn’t pay his rent, so he received an eviction notice from the landlord. The man didn’t know what to do. He would soon have no place to sleep, no money for food, no medical help.

His solution to his problem was to go to a bank and give the teller a note saying "This is a robbery, give me your money"…underscored with a smiley face. He reports that he was surprised when the teller started taking money of her till and pushing it toward him. He pushed it back and said "No! You’re supposed to call security and have me arrested!"

The teller gave the signal and the man stood and waited for a security guard to come and arrest him. When he was interviewed at the jail he said he thought that being jailed for attempted bank robbery would give him a place to sleep, food, and medical treatment. He did not know that there are many resources in the community for homeless people.

The public defender assigned to his case has been very skillful in getting him into a job training program, counseling, and temporary financial assistance to pay his rent. Because he had no criminal history, was unarmed, and did not take any money from the bank, he will probably be put on probation.

In the long run his situation is being worked out, but from the problem-solving efforts of others. A lesson here may be that when you are trying to solve a problem, it might be smart to seek information from others about better solutions than what you think up.


The Resiliency Center was founded by the late Al Siebert, PhD who studied highly resilient survivors for over fifty years. He authored the award-winning book The Resiliency Advantage: Master Change, Thrive Under Pressure and Bounce Back From Setbacks (2006 Independent Publisher’s Best Self-Help book), and best seller The Survivor Personality: Why Some People Are Stronger, Smarter, and More Skillful at Handling Life’s Difficulties…and How You Can Be, Too.