Social Problem-Solving Model: 12 Tools to Resolve Disputes

Social problem solvingPsychology has defined a “social problem” as anything that interferes with adaptive functioning in our social world (D’Zurilla, Nezu, & Maydeu-Olivares, 2004).

Each of us faces such social problems.

Despite our best intentions, conflicts with others – family members, neighbors, coworkers, etc. – will sometimes arise.

What is the best way to resolve such problems? Is every social problem unique, so that no systematic method can solve it? Do we always have to improvise and hope for the best?

This article describes elements of a positive and systematic method for addressing social problems before they overwhelm you.

This method can also be taught by the various helping professions – including psychologists, counselors, and social workers – to clients who struggle with social problem solving (Pierce, 2012).

Before you continue, we thought you might like to download our three Positive Relationships Exercises for free. These detailed, science-based exercises will help you or your clients build healthy, life-enriching relationships.

The Social Problem-Solving Model

Starting in the early 1970s, D’Zurilla, Goldfried, and colleagues have outlined a systematic and research-based approach to social problem solving (D’Zurilla & Goldfried, 1971).

Research based on this model has shown that effective social problem solving predicts better social and emotional adjustment (Heppner, Hibel, Neal, Weinstein, & Rabinowitz, 1982; Neal & Heppner, 1986).

Research has also found that ineffective social problem solving is associated with depressive symptoms, anxiety, and general emotional distress (Heppner, Witty, & Dixon, 2004).

Social problem solving involves two basic dimensions: problem orientation and problem-solving skills.

Problem orientation is the mindset used when approaching a problem. Such problem orientation can be negative or positive.

Negative problem-solving orientation is a maladaptive mindset that views problems as threats to one’s wellbeing. It involves doubt about one’s ability to solve problems. It also includes easy frustration when faced with problems.

Positive problem-solving orientation is an adaptive mindset that sees problems as challenges and as solvable. It involves seeing oneself as able to solve such problems. It acknowledges that social problem solving takes time and effort, and involves commitment to solving problems, rather than avoidance.

Problem-solving skills include five basic stages:

  1. Defining the problem
  2. Brainstorming solutions
  3. Choosing a solution
  4. Applying the solution chosen
  5. Verifying how well the solution worked


The Process Explained

Defining the problemLet’s look at the basic stages in the problem-solving skills area.


1. Defining the social problem

Charles Kettering, former head of research at General Motors, famously said that “a problem well-stated is half-solved” (Levy, 2020).

This applies to all kinds of problems, including social ones. Clearly defining a social problem is a crucial first step in solving it. Once the problem is clearly defined, possible solutions can appear.


2. Brainstorming solutions

Once the problem has been defined, the social problem-solving model encourages brainstorming as many solutions as you can think of, in any order they occur to you.

At this stage, let your mind run free in producing solutions, without being overly concerned about whether the resources exist to implement the solution, who might object to it, or even if it will work.

The emphasis here is on “reaching for quantity” of solutions, while “deferring judgment” about their quality (Osborn, 1963).


3. Choosing a solution

At this stage, you survey the possible solutions and choose one that seems most applicable to this social problem.

The solution might be one you initially saw or a combination of elements from several solutions.


4. Applying the solution chosen

At this stage, you set about applying the solution you chose to the problem at hand. This solution might prove relatively easy or more effortful. The primary concern is that it is effective in resolving the problem for you.


5. Verifying how well the solution worked

If your solution worked well, then your social problem has been resolved, and you can turn your attention to other matters. If it worked only partially or not at all, the model suggests you start the problem-solving process again from the beginning, with the added benefit of any knowledge gained from the first attempt.


Real-Life Example

A social problem at work

Janice has found herself in conflict with her coworker Jack, who apparently resents her recent promotion. The problem appears to manifest in Jack slow-walking projects he needs to hand off to Janice to add finishing touches.

Approaching this issue from a social problem-solving perspective, Janice reaches the following conclusions:

1. Defining the social problem

Janice defines the problem:

My promotion seems to have caused resentment on Jack’s part. I depend on Jack for timely products in the workflow. This situation slows down my work and has a negative impact on productivity and profitability in the company.

2. Brainstorming solutions to the problem

Janice brainstorms potential solutions to this social problem:

  1. Just ignore Jack; he might only seek attention; he’ll get over his resentment and speed up his work eventually.

  2. Speak with Jack directly; say it seems that projects are progressing slowly; ask him if there’s anything I can do to help speed things up on his end.

  3. Speak to an immediate supervisor about this; say work seems to slow up on Jack’s end, perhaps because of resentment about my promotion, and it is hurting the company.

  4. Speak to immediate supervisor, but don’t bring up the idea of resentment over promotion; supervisor will discuss with Jack how his work has slowed and ask if he can explain this; if he does not have a reasonable (e.g., medical) excuse, ask him to work on speeding up again, for everyone’s benefit.

  5. Send email to immediate supervisor so there will be a message trail to refer to as needed, with the same message as 3) or 4).

3. Choosing the solution

After imagining herself applying each of these solutions and how they might play out in the workplace, Janice settled on:

A combination of solutions 4 and 5, including emailing her immediate supervisor, stating that a problem is occurring at Jack’s stage in the workflow. The solution would next include speaking to the supervisor, describing details of how the work has slowed down at Jack’s stage, and giving time specifics for delays on several projects.

4. Applying the solution

Having chosen this solution, Janice sent her immediate supervisor an email defining the situation above. She then met with the supervisor, who pledged to bring the problem up in diplomatic terms to Jack by noon the next day.

5. Verifying how well the solution worked

Janice checked with the supervisor the next afternoon and found that she had in fact spoken with Jack. She said that Jack appeared receptive to the talk and had vowed to increase his speed up to earlier levels. Janice then documented timeframes for receipt of work product from Jack over one week and found these to be back to earlier levels.

Janice made a note to herself to continue monitoring the situation to ensure workflows maintained proper pace. If they did not, she would start the social problem-solving process anew.


3 Problem-Solving Skills

Problem solving skillsWe have discussed social problem-solving skills within the basic model outlined by D’Zurilla and colleagues.

Additional sub-skills can also support the basic problem-solving model.


Sub-skills involved in defining the problem

One sub-skill useful in defining problems is goal/barrier analysis.

In Janice’s problem at work, she could define her primary goal as increasing Jack’s workflow speed so that overall workflow is optimal.

She could define a barrier to this goal as Jack’s resentment over her promotion.

Having defined the problem in terms of goals/barriers, she might also do a fact check to ensure all components of the problem are rooted in fact. For example, is she sure that Jack’s resentment is the principal reason for his slowed workflow? Perhaps he’s been ill or upset by something else, which the supervisor could ask him.


Sub-skills involved in brainstorming solutions

Alex F. Osborn (1963), an advertising specialist who coined the term “brainstorming,” held that our minds are more productive when not burdened with thoughts beyond solution generation.

Sub-skills involved in the brainstorming solutions phase include the aforementioned “reaching for quantity” of solutions, while “deferring judgment” about their quality.


Sub-skills involved in choosing a solution

To choose among the solutions generated, one can use the sub-skill of judging solutions based on impact and effort. We can group solutions into categories of:

  • Low Effort – High Impact: Where applying the solution would take little effort but would likely have a high impact on solving the problem.

  • High Effort – High Impact: Where applying the solution would take significant effort but likely have a high impact on the problem.

  • Low Effort – Low Impact: Where applying the solution would take little effort but likely have little impact on the problem.

  • High Effort – Low Impact: Where applying the solution would take a lot of effort, while having little impact on the problem.

The point is to judge solutions according to likely effort involved plus likely impact and to choose the one with the best effort-to-impact ratio.


Strategies and Techniques for Solving Problems

One strategy not explicitly mentioned in the basic social problem-solving model of D’Zurilla and colleagues is to imagine yourself applying potential solutions to help determine which one might work best.

Imagining yourself applying given solutions can help you realize which solution might be easier or more difficult to enact and which might be most impactful.

An additional technique that should be helpful in problem solving is breaking problems down into parts. We can apply this technique at the problem definition phase. Maybe there are two or more distinct problems in your initial problem definition.

If so, it will probably be best to choose the one component of the problem that is most crucial. For example, in Janice’s work problem, Jack’s resentment might be considered a distinct and secondary problem.

In that scenario, Jack’s slow-walking the workflow can be considered the essential problem to solve. He might stay resentful of Janice’s promotion, but as long as he improves his work speed, they might consider the primary problem solved. If Jack’s continuing resentment proves to be a significant problem in other ways, it could be addressed through a new and distinct social problem-solving process.


Helpful Worksheets, Activities, and Games

Social problem-solving worksheets

Use this basic worksheet adapted from psychology’s social problem-solving literature, showing key steps in the process.

This worksheet is focused on the brainstorming phase of social problem solving.

Use this worksheet to focus on goal/barrier analysis and fact finding in social problem solving.

Imagining Solutions to Social Problems involves imagining the application of solutions and what can be learned in each instance.

This checklist can be used to ensure that you and other parties in a conflict have had their viewpoints and needs considered in resolving a social problem.


End in mind

“End in mind” is one of the seven key habits Stephen R. Covey (2020) urges readers to cultivate as a means to success in any field (Covey, 2020).

In this activity, you start by stating the outcome you want to get in solving a problem. Working backward in problem-solving sequence, you next describe effects of applying the chosen solution, then the application phase, then choosing that solution, then the possible solutions that came out of the brainstorming process, and finally how you defined the problem.

While this reverses the order of steps usually taken in social problem solving, it can help develop the skill of different or divergent thinking, which is the basis for the key problem-solving phase of brainstorming. Here is a worksheet for End in Mind as it applies to social problem solving.


Role-playing problem solutions

Role-play is another game or activity that can bolster problem-solving skills, for individuals or groups. In this activity, one can role-play potential solutions to a problem to get a sense of what it might be like to apply them and how comfortable or awkward a solution might feel for those involved, and then discuss these experiences after.


Appreciative Inquiry

Appreciative Inquiry starts with a “Discovery” phase that assesses an individual’s or team’s resources.

It then proceeds to a “Dream” phase that essentially brainstorms about what the individual or organization would be like if their wildest dreams were realized.

The “Dream” phase of Appreciative Inquiry can also be blended with the Miracle Question, wherein a person or group is told something like: “Suppose you were to go to bed tonight, and while you were sleeping, a miracle happened. Then, when you wake up, what will your life, your job, your company be like?”

Like the Discovery phase, the Dream phase of Appreciative Inquiry can elicit a positive mindset that is helpful to creative thinking and problem solving.

In the subsequent “Design” and “Destiny” phases, one plans out how to implement the insights gained in earlier phases of Appreciative Inquiry.

The overall process of Appreciative Inquiry can be seen as an exercise that builds a positive and flexible mindset that will help whenever one approaches social problem solving, as outlined by D’Zurilla and colleagues.


Helping Students: The Social Problem-Solving Program

Helping studentsSocial problem solving, in various comparable forms, has become widespread in school settings.

In a review of the literature on social problem-solving interventions in preschool settings, Barnes, Wang, and O’Brien (2018) found significant reduction in externalizing behaviors such as aggression and an increase in basic social skills.

Merrill, Smith, Cumming, & Daunic (2017) documented similar findings for social problem-solving interventions in kindergarten through 12th grade.

While approaches vary, many of the interventions involve training students in the positive problem orientation and social problem-solving steps familiar from D’Zurilla and colleagues’ work (Algozzine, Daunic, & Smith, 2010).


Assessing Social Problem Solving: An Inventory

D’Zurilla, Nezu, and Maydeu-Olivares (2002) developed the Social Problem Solving Inventory – Revised (SPSI-R).

This valid and reliable self-report tool measures positive and negative problem-solving orientation, skill in basic problem-solving steps, and impulsive and avoidant problem-solving styles.

The SPSI-R is appropriate for individuals aged 13+ and requires only a 4th-grade reading level. It can be used for guidance in developing an individual’s social problem-solving capacity.


Social Problem Solving and Positive Psychology

Social problem solving in actionPositive psychology emphasizes the study and development of positive human functioning  on individual and societal levels.

Social problem solving aligns with positive psychology in two important ways.

First, it encourages a positive problem-solving orientation, in which problems are approached as solvable, and one cultivates confidence in being able to solve them with the right attention and effort.

Secondly, the social problem-solving model provides a research-based, step-by-step method. When followed, this method progressively builds the skills needed to solve social problems, from clear definition of the problem; through brainstorming solutions; to choosing, applying, and verifying a solution.

In this method, social problems are addressed directly and constructively, rather than avoided or approached in a haphazard manner. They can also be addressed in a manner that involves the best ratio of effort-to-impact.


5 Valuable Tools

The Self-Esteem Journal Worksheet is a tool for developing self-esteem and a sense of one’s strengths over seven days.

Self-esteem and a recognition of one’s strengths should help in developing the above-mentioned positive orientation, which is crucial to effective social problem solving.

The Positive Emotion Brainstorm is a tool designed to induce a positive emotional state, which can enhance cognitive flexibility and problem solving.

Consulting the Future Self When Making Choices is a tool based on the research of anticipatory regret. It helps one assess the relative weight of short-term gain against the possibility that a given choice in the moment will cause significant regret later.

Managing Toxic Relationships is a tool designed to help navigate relationships that produce not only discrete problems from time to time, but ongoing conflict.

The EQ (emotional intelligence) 5-Point tool is a worksheet designed to help you address conflicts with others socially intelligently, using comments that balance assertiveness with defusing conflict.

For further reading, we recommend these articles for improving communication and building positive relationships.


A Take-Home Message

Social problems are common in everyday life. They can cause significant disruption and distress if left to worsen or approached haphazardly.

However, if approached in a direct and systematic way, social problems can often be resolved and woven into the fabric of a life well lived.

Effective social problem solving begins with cultivating a positive problem-solving orientation. This orientation includes a sense that such problems can be solved and the confidence that you can solve them with the right attention and effort.

Further, when approached step by step, using the social problem-solving model outline above, seemingly overwhelming problems become much more manageable.

We hope you will consider using one or more of the tools presented in this article to help you or your clients resolve social problems as they occur in daily life.

We hope you enjoyed reading this article. Don’t forget to download our three Positive Relationships Exercises for free.

If you want more, our Positive Psychology Toolkit© contains over 370 science-based positive psychology exercises, interventions, questionnaires, and assessments for practitioners to use in their therapy, coaching, or workplace.

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About the Author

Dr. Jeffrey Gaines earned a Ph.D. in Philosophy from SUNY/Stony Brook in 1992, and a further Ph.D. in clinical psychology from Pennsylvania State University in 2001. He sees clinical psychology as a practical extension of philosophy and specializes in neuropsychology – having been board-certified in 2011. Jeffrey is currently Clinical Director at Metrowest Neuropsychology in Westborough, MA.

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