Collaborative Problem Solving--it's not just for kids!

Uncategorized Nov 24, 2020

What do you do when you have a disagreement with a five year old?  What about with an adult who acts like a five year old, or makes you feel like one yourself? Are you sick of circling around the same conflicts, over and over, never reaching a lasting solution?

Collaborative problem solving is a great tool for resolving conflicts and creating solutions that last because they meet everone's underlying needs.   Sound like a pipe dream?  It's not--but it does require you to practice and master some specific skills and techniques.

This video walks you through the collaborative problem solving tool developed by child psychologist Ross Greene, as well as Marshall Rosenberg's   "I-message" framework which is a great way to initiate the collaborative problem solving process in adult relationships.

The 6 Steps of Collaborative Problem Solving

  1. Identify and agree on a problem that you and the other person are trying to solve
  2. Invite the other person to identify all their concerns about the situation surrounding this problem
  3. You repeat back each concern listed  to check for understanding. You do not comment on or otherwise dispute these concerns—concerns are subjective opinions and feelings—they cannot be “proven” or “disproven”
  4. You check for more concerns—making sure that you’ve got all their concerns out on the table
  5. You share your own concerns.  Do this as simply and calmly as you can, without accusation or trying to dispute the other person's concerns
  6. The two of you look creatively at the whole pile of concerns and see what solutions you can come up with that you can both agree are a satisfactory way to meet everyone’s concerns

3 adaptations for using collaborative problem solving with other adults

  1. Step away from hierarchy as a power source
  2. Do some deep listening before you frame the problem that needs solving—be open to reframing the problem based on what you hear
  3. If you’re not sure how to get started, try this as an opener: “Here’s what I’m feeling in this situation….What are you feeling concerned about?   What would you need to feel better about this situation?

Still not sure this will work?  Try I-messages as way into collaborative problem solving

Sometimes our conflicts with other adults bring out the worst in one or both of us--this can be especially true when the issue is one that keeps recurring in a pattern.  But that's also a great clue that we need to do something different to disrupt a recurring, systemic dynamic.  It can feel hard to get started even discussing a problem like this, let alone finding a solution together that will truly last.  

I-messages are a very helpful communications tool for initiating challenging conversations and getting them on an adult-adult track for collaborative problem solving.  

There are five steps to the I-message process--here's the script:

  1. When this happens:_____   

(describe only the factual circumstances at issue without judgment or editorializing)

2. I feel ______     

(describe your state of mind, what you are feeling inside yourself when this happens)

3.  Because_______”

(describe which of your needs are at stake in this situation and how the circumstances in question are impacting your ability to meet these needs)

4. Stop. Wait as long as it takes for the other person to respond. Listen deeply for the other person’s feelings and needs as well as any requests they are making of you to help them meet their needs.

5. “Could it work for both of us if____?”

(do your best to make a collaborative proposal that meets both of your needs)


How we get along with each other has so much to do with our impact and our joy across all the areas of our lives.  Collaborative problem solving and I-messages are a great way to step up your positive presence and your resourcefulness whenever you're looking to disrupt the dynamics of conflict and find lasting solutions to shared challenges.  So get out there and start practicing--there's no better way to build these skills and get the lasting benefits that better communication brings. 

Further Resources

If you want to dig deeper, check out Ross Greene's book Raising Human Beings, as well as this website devoted to applying collaborative problem solving in educational and parenting contexts.

Marshall Rosenberg's book Nonviolent Communication is an amazing perspective on interpersonal relationships and how to break through communication challenges to build deeply rooted empathy and trust.




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