Problem solving

Community worker

As a community worker it is highly likely that you will need to engage in problem solving with clients to try and work out what is causing their challenging behaviour. You are not expected to provide specialist advice but there are techniques available to assist you to in providing positive results for the client when seeking causes of problems and solutions.

These can include:

  • Consulting with the client
  • Reality therapy and Choice Theory
  • Solution-based Behavioural Change Model

Consulting with the client

When communicating with clients about problem solving, it is essential that you ask the client many questions regarding the issue. Firstly, explore the client’s situation and attempt to understand why they feel as they do. If you set the tone by asking questions that help raise underlying issues and concerns you will help to promote the problem solving process.

  • Listening skills are the most powerful tools for problem solving and resolving conflicts productively.
  • Passive listening involves simply being open to what the client is saying.
  • Active listening seeks to clarify and verify what is heard via questions that reflect back to the speaker, what was said, identifying whether what they are saying has been interpreted.

(Hiam 2003)

Consultation is a two-way communication process for receiving and presenting information. It involves finding out what people think before a final decision is made, and is similar to the process of brainstorming. The aim of the consultation is to ensure that the organisation and the client are happy with the resolution of the problem.

Engaging in positive interactions with clients can enable them to feel:

  • Listened to
  • Encouraged
  • Empowered
  • Confident
  • Accepted
  • Valued
  • Supported
  • Included
  • Proud
  • Loved.

On the other hand, negative interactions with a client may lead them to feel:

  • Humiliated
  • Embarrassed
  • Put down
  • Rejected
  • Excluded
  • Dismissed
  • Dominated
  • Stupid.

D’Zurilla and Goldfried (1971) identified five general steps to problem solving.

  1. General orientation
    The client is encouraged to recognise problems and to realise that it is possible to deal with them by acting systematically, rather than impulsively.
  2. Problem definition
    Ask the client to define the problem specifically. If this is difficult for the client, consider the history and nature of the problem in context.
  3. Generation of alternatives
    After defining the problem, ask the client to brainstorm possible solutions. Write these down as they are developed.
  4. Decision making
    Examine the alternatives carefully, eliminating those that are obviously unacceptable. The clients should consider the likely short-term and long-term consequences of the remaining alternatives. Writing down the positive and negative aspects of each alternative can assist in the decision making process. Give a rating between 1 and 10 for overall outcome.
  5. Verification/Trial
    When the plan is put into effect, the client is encouraged to keep track of progress to ensure that it solves the problem. If it doesn’t the problem solving sequence must be restarted and another solution attempted.

Reality Therapy and Choice Theory

Reality Therapy and Choice Theory (developed originally by Dr William Glasser in the 1960s) is another positive behaviour management approach that seeks to solve a client’s behaviour problems with the client.

In Reality Therapy, the client is asked three basic questions to help them start looking at their behaviour and whether it is working for them.

  • What do you want?
  • What are you doing to get what you want?
  • Is it working?

The worker then helps the client to develop a workable plan to get what he or she wants. Doing is the key effective way toward a solution in Reality Therapy – changing what we do is the key to changing how we feel and to getting what we want.

At the heart of Glasser’s Choice Theory is the concept that people can only control theor own behaviour. If they think they can control others, then they will only be frustrated with the outcomes. If you think that you are controlled by others then you are likely to blame them for your own actions and again will be headed for frustration.

According to Glassner For Glasser, the solution is in the present moment – that is all we have that we can work with.

Solution-Based Behavioural Change model

According to Keane and Dixon (1999) one technique for intervention or response to client behaviour over time is that of a model called Solution-based Behavioural Change Model, which is reported to have had positive results with many clients with problem behaviours. Molnar and de Shazer (1987) and Walter and Peller (1993) originally proposed this model, which they termed “solution-based problem solving”.

This Model has three important characteristics:

  • It is solution-focused
  • It is non-blaming, and
  • It externalises the problem.


There is a focus on the desired solution to a problem, not on how the problem arose. It promotes solutions so that all the people involved can feel satisfied with the solution; no-one is made to feel wrong.


The aim is to remove the difficulties, not to blame the client or anyone else for causing the problem.

Externalises the problem

The problem is the behaviour or actions of the person, not the person themselves. The problem is external to the person, not an intrinsic part of them.

Stages of the Solutions-Focussed Behavioural Change Model

1. Name the problem.
The name given to the problem needs to be clearly and accurately stated, short, specific and non-blaming. Identifying the exact problem may require a period of regular observation – under what circumstances does this client’s behaviour cause a problem? Who is present when the problem occurs? When does it occur?

2. Name the Solution.
The solution should be a short, specific declaration of the desired outcome. Again a period of observation may be needed to establish in what situations desired behaviour occurs. When is there no problem? Who or what is involved when desired behaviour occurs?

3. Look for Causes.
The client themselves, family and others important in the client’s life (including professionals) may be involved in the search to understand how this problem arose and how it might be solved.

4. Develop and Implement Strategies.
Problems are solved only when people are ready to solve them. Recognition of the benefits of having a solution, in contrast to continuing to suffer the behaviour, will motivate some people to act. The best outcomes are achieved when the client is willing to find a solution. So the client needs to be asked whether they want a solution and whether they are ready to try and achieve the desired outcome.

Note: It is important to consider all possible strategies to achieve the solution (brainstorm). Do not eliminate any ideas without consideration – actions that don’t seem reasonable at first may turn out to be the best solutions.

If the first strategy chosen is not successful attempt another. Never give up.

5. Reward Success.
Making “a fuss” about a success for a client makes them feel valued and motivates them to further succeed.

6. Advocacy and Mediation.
At any stage of the Solution-focused Behavioural Change process, advocating in the client’s best interests or setting up a mediation session might be required.

Further reading

Solution-Based Behavioural Change model
Keane, B & Dixon, C 1999, Caring for people with problem behaviours, AUSMED Publications, Melbourne.

Last modified: Monday, 10 December 2018, 2:31 PM