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James L Creighton Ph.D.
James L Creighton Ph.D.

How to Find a Solution After an Argument

When a fight is over, there are still practical problems to solve.

In my last post, I recommended several rules to keep fights from escalating. My last recommendation was: If you’re dealing with a practical problem that needs to be solved, don’t mix the conflict phase with the problem-solving phase. Resolve the dispute, and then set a later date to wrestle with problem-solving.

The reason for this rule is that otherwise, the bad feelings from the fight will poison the problem-solving process, making it difficult to come up with a mutually acceptable solution. As you cool down from a fight, not all the poison has been discharged from your body, and the slightest bit of accusation or resentment may trigger the fight again. Sometimes the new fight is as bad or even worse than the original fight.

Admittedly, there are circumstances where it is urgent that you go to problem-solving immediately. But if you are still upset, this is a compelling reason not to move on to problem-solving. You may need several hours between the fight and the problem-solving session.

One way to assess whether the venom has left your system is to assess your attitude towards the other person. Do you still see the other person as an adversary, to blame for the situation, as the enemy? If you do, you may have difficulty moving on to mutual problem solving without re-triggering the fight. You are ready to problem solve when you can honestly say that we have a problem, rather than seeing her/him as the problem. You want to stand together facing the problem rather than facing off against each other.

How do you go about addressing the problem together? Here are some suggestions:

Use a Defined Set of Problem-Solving Steps

My wife and I have found it very helpful to have a set series of steps we use for problem-solving. We started out with steps first taught us by Dr. Thomas Gordon, of Parent Effectiveness Training fame, and have simply modified the wording so they work for us. The steps provide a familiar structure we can return to when the discussion has wandered off.

Our wording for these steps is:

  1. Agree on what you both (or all) need for the issue to be resolved.
  2. Brainstorm a list of alternative solutions.
  3. Agree on which solution(s) best meet both (all) people's needs.
  4. Agree on how to implement the solution.
  5. Agree on a way to determine if the solution is working.

1. Agree on what you both (or all) need for the issue to be resolved

The first step in problem-solving is to develop both a shared and thorough understanding of what each of you needs to feel good about any possible solution. This means you need to understand both the content issues and the relationship or emotional issues. That distinction is very important. Often times people rush to a practical solution to a problem – “we’ll buy a new car” – without dealing with important feelings such as “nobody pays any attention to my needs,” “I want to feel equal,” “I want to be included before decisions are made.” The emotional issues are likely to catch up with you eventually.

For some reason, most people — whether in intimate relationships or in business — skip over this “problem definition” stage, and often ignore relationship issues entirely. Instead, they jump straight to possible solutions. As a result, they often adopt solutions to the wrong problem, or can’t understand why other people undercut their solution.

I remember attending a meeting of a parent-teacher association where the topic being discussed was drugs in elementary school. The meeting began with a brief discussion of what the problem was. But soon someone suggested showing students a movie she’d seen recently. Someone else pointed out that this would cost money. Someone suggested a bake sale. By the end of the meeting, they had organized one heck of a bake sale. But I still hadn’t heard a clear definition of the problem.

If there is a potential solution floating around that people like, they often grab on to that solution as if it was the definition of the problem. This is just as likely to occur in business organizations as in personal relationships.

If there are other parties to the problem (or to the possible solutions) like “the kids,” you need to understand their content and relationship issues as well. If Person A and Person B get together and agree on something that involves Person C, it sure doesn’t feel like a mutual solution to Person C. As a result, Person C won’t have any emotional stake in the successful implementation of the agreement.

In my experience, you can spend 50% or more of the available problem-solving time defining the problem and still work efficiently and effectively.

2. Brainstorm a list of alternative solutions.

The next step is to brainstorm a list of alternative solutions. The term “brainstorm” means something very specific. This is a period to generate as many possible solutions as possible, without judgment or evaluation. There are some important principles underlying brainstorming:

  • People can be most creative when they feel safe psychologically. If every idea is judged when it is suggested, people will “shut down”. Do not evaluate the possible solutions during brainstorming. Just write them down without comment.
  • Get everybody engaged in generating solutions. One of the enemies of a mutually acceptable solution is the situation where each person is dug in defending their preferred solution. Rex has his preferred solution. Maria has hers. They dig in and defend or advocate for the solutions to which they’ve become emotionally committed. But if Rex and Maria have each generated 5-10 possible solutions, there isn’t the same emotional commitment to “my” solution.
  • Go for quantity. Research shows that groups that generate lots of solutions are more likely to come up with creative solutions than groups that generate just a few solutions. The creative solutions usually come after the obvious solutions have been listed.

3. Agree on which solution(s) best meet both (all) people's needs.

Here’s where the time you spent clarifying everybody’s needs pays off. The standard against which you evaluate solutions is your list of needs — both content and relationship. Which one does the best job of meeting all those needs? Remember to use your "I" statements to describe how a possible solution impacts you. Use active listening to respond to others’ concerns or thinking.

4. Agree on how to implement the solution.

I’ve seen couples do a great job on steps 1-3, and then end up in anger and resentment because they didn’t do an adequate job of discussing how their solution was going to be implemented. One couple agreed on the need to buy a new car but almost divorced when the husband went out and bought a new car without including his wife in selecting the car.

Develop a clear plan for who is going to do what and when. Be sure to specify which of you is responsible for each step. Often having joint responsibility means that no one truly feels responsible.

5. Agree on a way to determine if the solution is working.

What you don’t want is to have a solution that isn’t working, but have a crisis before you recognize it isn’t doing the job. Agree on how you will assess whether your agreed-upon solution is doing the job. Also, agree on when you are going to sit down and jointly evaluate whether it is working.

If it isn’t working, go through the process again, doing a good job of defining why it is not working. Above all, be sure to maintain your “WE have a problem” orientation, rather than blaming each other for why the first solution wasn't successful.


This is a synopsis of material from Loving through Your Differences: Building Strong Relationships from Separate Realities. Copyright ©2019 by James L. Creighton. Printed with permission from New World Library —

About the Author
James L Creighton Ph.D.

James Creighton, Ph.D., is a psychologist and relationship consultant who has worked with couples and conducted communications training for nearly 50 years.

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