I’ve read dozens of books about CBT techniques, but I rarely see a mention of problem-solving techniques. You could argue that therapy, counseling, or coaching is itself a problem-solving process, but I believe teaching specific problem-solving techniques can be beneficial for many of our clients because it stimulates executive functioning and can lead to a higher degree of self-efficacy.

Many therapists with a neuroscience bent (including me) see problems like anxiety and depression as a battle between the emotional part of the brain (limbic system) and the thinking part of the brain (the neocortex). It’s not really a fair fight. The emotional part of the brain responds to thoughts or external events 10 times faster than the thinking part of the brain, and as I’m sure you’ve seen time and time again, emotions can hijack the thinking part of the brain, muting the rational thought and decision-making ability of our clients. Teaching clients problem-solving techniques may stimulate executive functioning in the following ways:

  • Problem-solving techniques normalize a situation, making it seem less overwhelming.

  • Problem-solving techniques offer new ways of thinking.

  • Practicing problem-solving techniques may reduce impulsive tendencies.

  • Practicing problem-solving techniques may help clients with positive decision-making.

  • Problem-solving techniques may lead to more solution-focused thinking.

Here are a few problem-solving techniques that can be used with clients.

Brainstorming is an active process that involves generating many ideas or solutions to a problem in a short amount of time. Clients are presented with many open-ended questions and are asked to consider alternatives and possibilities as they expand outside their comfort zone. It can be done individually, in groups, aloud, on paper, and within a counseling session. The idea is to generate diverse perspectives about a given topic while being open, creative, and flexible. You may suggest clients brainstorm during journal writing, doodling, drawing, or while walking. These types of activities help stimulate right brain functions such as divergent thinking and creativity.

Mind-mapping is a visual representation of ideas and concepts related to a problem. It helps clients see the connections between different ideas to organize their thoughts, allowing them to work more efficiently with both sides of their brain. With this technique, words and illustrations complement and combine on a mind map. Clients put everything on a blank canvas: problems, resources, beliefs, values, and so on. By exploring the relationships among them, the solution may quickly emerge. Mind-mapping allows clients to fully discover their potential, understand solutions, and overcome obstacles in a creative way. You may suggest online sites like mindgenius.com, mindmeister.com, or mural.co.

SWOT Analysis is a technique used to evaluate the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats of a situation. This tool enables a client to appraise the positive and negative attributes regarding a particular goal or problem and how external factors impact them. The client is guided to make rational choices based on this analysis. Download the free Between Sessions SWOT worksheet at the end of the blog!

Decision matrix is a tool used to evaluate and compare different options or solutions, allowing individuals to choose the best option based on a set of criteria. The client lists two or more alternatives they are considering along with the pros and cons of each. Listing all the advantages and disadvantages of each alternative ensures they will not overlook relevant information. Next, they assign importance ratings to each pro and con factor. After listing the pros and cons of each alternative and assigning importance ratings, it is helpful to analyze this information. This can lead to observations and insights that allow the client to become clearer about the correct course of action.

Root cause analysis (RCA) is a method of identifying the underlying causes of a problem. By identifying the root cause, clients can develop a solution that addresses the problem at its source. RCA goes beyond simple cause and effect to identify and isolate concerns and failure points.  There are five steps in an RCA:

Define the problem. Analyze what is happening and identify the precise symptoms to form a problem statement.

Gather data. Before identifying the underlying problems, collect and evaluate all aspects of the situation.

Identify causal factors. Look for as many causal factors as possible that could have led to the problem.

Determine the root cause(s). Discover the root causes of each causal factor.

Recommend and implement solutions. Recommend solutions and preventive actions to ensure the problem does not happen again. Develop a timeline and plan for implementing the solution.

The Six Hats Method identifies different perspectives and emotions, allowing clients to focus on the task at hand. The Six Hats Method, developed by Dr. Edward de Bono, separates thinking into six different “hats” or modes of thinking. This helps clients approach problem-solving in a more organized, focused, and efficient way. The six hats are:

White Hat – represents objective thinking and the gathering of information, facts, and data related to the problem.

Red Hat – represents emotions and intuition.

Black Hat – represents critical thinking and the identification of potential problems, potential flaws, and risks.

Yellow Hat – represents positive thinking and the identification of different options and potential solutions.

Green Hat – represents creative thinking and the generation of new ideas and unconventional solutions to the problem.

Blue Hat – represents the overall thinking process and the management of the problem-solving process, goals, and objectives, and coordinates the use of the other hats.

When using this technique, individuals or groups are encouraged to act as if they are wearing each hat, and to focus on the thinking associated with that hat. This can help clients consider different perspectives, generate new ideas, and make more informed choices

The SCAMPER technique encourages people to use their imagination and creativity to generate new ideas. It stands for:

Substitute – Can we change this?

Combine – What can we combine?

Adjust – How can we make adjustment?

Modify – Can we modify it?

Put to other uses – Can it be used for something else?

Eliminate – Is there a reason we should eliminate it?

Reverse – Can we change the order?

BetweenSessions.com offers many worksheets to aid your clients in learning problem-solving included with your Library of over 2,500 tools. We also offer a Room in our Virtual Counseling Rooms software where clients can learn and practice problem-solving techniques.

Click here for free worksheets on the SWOT Analysis and the SCAMPER technique.