Teaching Personal Problem Solving to Adults

By Brammer, Lawrence | Journal of Cognitive Psychotherapy, January 1, 1990 | Go to article overview
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Teaching Personal Problem Solving to Adults

Brammer, Lawrence, Journal of Cognitive Psychotherapy

Solving personal problems is a basic life skill. The goal is to achieve problemsolving competence in applying a variety of models, three of which are trial and error/reinforcement, linear/rational, and intuitive/creative. The focus in this article is on the intuitive creative model that deals with novel problematic situations. Conditions of readiness for solving problems with any model are accurate problem awareness and appraisal of the problem, an attitude of meeting a challenge, selfefficacy or confidence in one's ability to solve problems, and an appropriate problem-solving set. While much research has been devoted to studying children and college youth in laboratory situations doing essentially thinking types of tasks, little research has been done with middle-aged and older adults. More research is needed on how adults learn problem-solving skills, and how they might develop greater problem-solving competence.


Problem solving is a basic life skill, but few people are aware of their style or have a varied repertoire of personal problem-solving strategies. The purpose of this article is to survey the issues and methods for teaching selected problem-solving skills to adults. The goal for such instruction is to develop problem-solving effectiveness (Heppner & Krauskopf, 1987). This means that adults could become aware of their basic style of solving problems in everyday living, and that they would be able to choose the most appropriate strategy from a menu of problem-solving approaches.

The basic assumption underlying the discussion to follow is that personal problem solving can be categorized into distinct styles, and that these personal styles can be subdivided into teachable skills. The illustrative teaching strategy is a microskills training workshop (Ivey & Authier, 1978). This cognitive/behavioral approach involves learning a set of basic skills which are then assembled into a functional problem-solving process. So much of the literature on personal problem solving relates to learning such skills in a counseling format (Dixon & Glover, 1984; Haley, 1987; Heppner, 1978; Heppner, Reeder, & Larson, 1983; Hosford & DeVisser, 1976), but very little attention is devoted to learning personal problem solving with adult group methods.

There is disagreement in the literature on the definition and scope of personal problem solving. In this article, problem solving is considered one of many coping skills that have affective as well as cognitive components. Textbook discussions typically include problem solving as a component of cognition. Mayer (1983) considers thinking, problem solving, and cognition as interchangeable terms. Thinking is what a person does when he or she solves a problem. According to Mayer, a problem must have some givens (such as conditions and information), goals (end states desired), and obstacles (processes to reach the goal are not obvious). There appears to be general agreement among cognitive psychologists, however, that problem solving involves some rational steps that take the person toward a goal when that goal is uncertain. When reaching beyond the narrow range of linear and rational models that evolve from laboratory studies, the real-life problem-solving process becomes a "complex, dynamic, highly interactive, and intermittent process" (Heppner &Krauskopf, 1987, p. 375). D'Zurilla and Nezu(1982) state that problem solving is a process people use to cope with daily problematic situations. This means that the person is faced with obstacles or decisions for which no effective solutions or outcomes are apparent.

Following is a brief presentation of three common problem-solving process models and their component skills. The focus will be on intuitive problem solving, sometimes described as creative problem solving. Space does not allow detailed discussion of trial and error or linear and systems models; furthermore, the linear model is covered in detail in another article in this issue.

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