Collaborative Problem Solving: Examples & Techniques

Instructor: Della McGuire

Della has been teaching secondary and adult education for over 20 years. She holds a BS in Sociology, MEd in Reading, and is ABD on the MComm in Storytelling.

In this lesson, we will discuss strategies used in Collaborative Problem Solving (CPS). This process uses a variety of steps to solve a problem in a variety of situations, such as dealing with difficult children, mediation between two or more parties, and in contract negotiations.

Mike's Mediation Methods

Mike works as a mediator and is an expert at dispute resolution. The majority of his cases come from divorce attorneys, but he also works in real estate with landlords and tenants and also gets clients through the school board with parents, students and teachers. Mike wishes there were more people who had basic conflict resolution and problem solving skills so he could lighten his case load. He believes everyone could benefit from learning how to collaborate in solving their problems to have their needs met.

Collaborative Problem Solving

Collaborative Problem Solving (CPS) is a process of civil argumentation wherein two or more parties negotiate agreeably to have conflicting needs met. This can work well for two people each hoping to convince the other to agree to something, whether parent and child, parent and teacher, student(s) and teacher, spouses or romantic partners, business partners, tenant and landlord, or any other situation in which two people with different positions or interests can come together to have both needs met.

There are a couple of different ways the CPS process can be implemented, depending on the sources of the method and the primary problem being addressed. For example, the approach taken by the Department of Psychiatry at Massachusetts General Hospital is based on the work of Dr. Ross Greene and Dr. Stuart Ablon at The Collaborative Problem Solving (CPS) Institute. This version uses CPS to diffuse and redirect difficult children by assisting them with problem solving skills.

In another example, Roger Fisher and William Ury write about CPS as a tool for negotiation and mediation in their book, Getting to Yes. Mike's method for mediation takes wisdom from these sources to achieve the goal of a peaceful resolution of differences.

Identifying Problems

The first step is to identify the problem that needs to be addressed. In Mike's cases, this is stated clearly on the intake form, but for people to use this strategy, it may take some conversation to determine where each stands and how firmly they hold their opinion.

In conversations to begin identifying the problem, people will often speak in terms of solutions. They talk about their ideas and propose compromises as solutions. This can function well as a brainstorming session where all ideas are listed without rejecting any. Thus, it is beneficial to compose a comprehensive list of everyone's suggestions without judgment or analysis. The goal in brainstorming is to be focused on quantity, not quality. By emphasizing solutions, the problems will emerge as common patterns or trends in the brainstorm list. Mike encourages clients to think about every possible issue to include in the list.

The next step would be to analyze each of the possible solutions to find some common ground that suits each other's interests and needs. For example, if parents seem to go back and forth over childcare arrangements in a custody dispute, it could indicate a problem one parent has about the other's choice of childcare provider. Mike can address the root of the issue and provide a possible resolution through an independent assessment of the childcare options available.

Identifying Needs

One element of CPS that is fairly universal among the different approaches is the importance of identifying each party's needs. This critical step is often left out, and the parties can effectively end a dispute once they have identified and articulated their needs to the others.

When people articulate and compare their needs, they often find more overlap than they realized
image of collaborative problem solving

In listing out ones needs in preparation for a CPS session, it becomes important to think critically about which of those needs are flexible and which are not. Be realistic and compassionate towards yourself and others when thinking about these needs and their priority. If the need is unrealistic and is unlikely to be met, it might be a good idea to be flexible, so that when the needs list is brought to the CPS brainstorming session, there may be some wiggle room.

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