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How confident are you in your ability to solve problems under stress?

Whenever we have a difference between what we want and what we have, we have a problem. The degree of the problem is determined by how important the want is, as well as the perceived threat and emotions attached.

How we behave when under stress can either decrease or increase the intensity of a problem. Consider a couple arguing and the situation becomes tense. Words are said that only add fuel to the disagreement and increase the seriousness of the argument. How the couple solves these kinds of situations determines how well they get along and how long they’ll stay together.

This micro skill of problem solving can be improved and developed with practice.


The first step to solving any problem is to be clear on what the problem is and why it’s a problem. Becoming overwhelmed by emotions and starting to react emotionally decreases our ability to objectively solve a problem. The challenge is that when we’re caught in emotions the emotional region of our brain can’t think; it can only react.

However, emotions can be helpful to indicate that we’re experiencing a difference between what we want and what we have. For example, we fail a test, but we have one more chance to pass. Feeling like a failure and being sad are understandable, but these feelings don’t change the facts.


Once we’re clear that we have a problem and want it solved, we’re in position to move from focusing on why we have this problem. Spending hours evaluating why we failed a test won’t change the situation.

While we can learn from our failures, the benefit is lost if we hyper-focus on the reason for the failure and get caught up in blaming others. Concentrating on negative emotions and blaming robs energy and time that can be used instead to solve the problem.

To move forward and to solve a problem we must accept what we can control (for example, our actions) and to release what we can’t control.

Problem solving begins with making a conscious decision to act. This helps to engage the motivation and resiliency to put forth the effort required to solve a problem. When we focus on the end goal, our thinking and action can help manage our emotions.


One key to effective problem solving is separating the problem-solving and decision-making steps. This can help leverage the cognitive brain and bring our emotions under control. Using a structured process increases the likelihood that we’ll slow down and consider our options, so we avoid making rash decisions that may only create more problems and risk.

1. Be clear on what success looks – Solving a problem requires being clear on the desired outcome. For example, needing a mark of 70 per cent to pass a test creates the expectation for what needs to be done to solve the problem and achieve the desired outcome. The more specific you are, the more likely you’ll be able to determine if you know the steps required to solve the problem or if you will need support.

2. List a possible solution – Brainstorm possible options to solve the problem and consider how realistic each option is. Options must be within your control and capability. Writing them out can help remove emotions and focus on what you can control and do.

3. Decision making – Pick the option that you believe is best and state why it’s the best option for you. Consider any obvious risks as well as how the decision may create unintended consequences for yourself or others. This can help make the final decision as to whether you should act on this option or to go back to the list of choices.

4. Frame your action plan – Once you’ve made your decision, you’re ready to frame your action plan that maps out the steps to get to your goal. How will you study to prepare for the re-exam? How will you put your focus on what you can control versus what you can’t control? The action plan must include details on its frequency, duration and intensity. It should also indicate how you’ll measure progress and the success of your actions, and how long it’s expected to take to solve the problem. Most problems require clear action, time, resiliency and patience.

5. Act – Once you’re clear on the path and plan, it’s time to act and do what’s required to solve the problem. Being focused and clear on your actions increases the probability that you can solve the problem. This helps to keep your thinking clear and to reduce the risk of being caught up in unwanted negative emotions. No one wants to think about failure, but sometimes the best plans fail. Accepting this concept prepares us for what we’ll do if we fail, such as repeating the process from the start or taking another approach.

Bill Howatt is the chief research and development officer of work force productivity with Morneau Shepell in Toronto.

You can find all the stories in this series at