The material in this series of 22 x blogs (of which this is number 6) with this similar format were originally published by the now late Ivan Sokolov and his wife Jacquie Pearson under the auspices of The Parent Network. They are re-published with the permission of the authors for which I am most grateful.
Problems that inevitably occur within most relationships can be much easier to tackle if we are familiar with the concept of problem ownership. This means stepping back when a problem begins to arise and asking yourself: `”Who is most upset?” or “Who needs help first?” and “Whose problem is this?”
If a person is not getting something they need, they will feel uncomfortable and get upset-how upset depends on the importance of the need. But if their behaviour in fulfilling this need doesn’t interfere with the others, or prevent others from meeting their own needs, then the only problem is the satisfaction of the need – the person owns the problem.
If a person is managing to satisfy their needs but the way they have chosen interferes with others and does prevent others from meeting their own needs, then the other people are likely to get upset – they own the problem. When everybody is managing to meet their needs without interfering with anybody else, there is no problem!
Quite often we become emotionally involved in a problem that is not ours and this reduces our ability to cope, think straight or help the person with the problem. This happens more often in close relationships where our loved ones’ distress, anger, confusion, etc. is more likely to trigger our own emotional patterns from the past.
By asking ourselves the above questions we can figure out who has the problem and from there we can make clearer decisions about whether we need to be involved and what action to take if we do.
It sometimes happens that we ‘take on’ the problems of others – always with the best intentions, and because we most probably genuinely care about them. Often we have a sense of responsible for the other person, as a parent, or boss, or older sibling. But in certain cases this is quite inapropriate. Not only do we load ourselves with a burden we don’t really need (no doubt having enough of our own!) we also deprive those whose problem we take on, of the sense of achievement that comes from sorting out a problem, and we encourage their continued dependence and an attitude of dependency.
There is a fine line between truly helping a person towards finding their solutions, and thereby increasing their self-worth, and “doing it for them”, which keeps them powerless.
A matter of priority
There will be occasions when it isn’t clear who owns the problem. For example:
“When I came upon a road accident, I knew the people needed my help, but I had to deal with my own distress before I could be of any use.”
“A week after I had been promoted to manager, I received a list of the redundancies in my division. I was surprised, and more than a little uncomfortable, when Jed, who was on my list, came to see me. He proceeded to tell me about the difficulties he had been having in his marriage, which had finally come to a head, and he was going through a rather messy divorce. He asked for my support. I did what I could to reassure him, but felt awful, and had to see my manager for help in dealing with the situation.”
“My son was upset because his grandmother had repeatedly promised him a particular present and failed yet again to deliver. Before I could help him think about what to do with what should have been his problem, I needed to unload my share of the problem – which I did by telling him how annoyed I was at my mother for breaking her promises. That freed me then to help him.”
In these situations, both parties involved had a problem, and a series of solutions had to be worked out, prioritising needs and solutions. In the first, the person arriving on the scene of the accident had to deal with their distress first. In the second, the new manager had to offer what support he could, before seeking help himself. The parent in the third case, managed to deal with both problems at the same time by exressing how they felt as part of the same process of listening to and dealing with the distress of the son.
Some people in these three situations would not have experienced any needs of their own and so would have been able to concentrate straightaway on the needs of the other. Others may have felt themselves being sucked into the problem and taken the decision to stay back and not get emotionally involved.
More problem ownership
The two most important things about the concept of problem ownership are: it helps you to identify how to act, if at all; and it encourages you to allow others responsibility for their own problems. The important issue is to differentiate between your own needs and the needs of others. With your own problems you need skills that help you assert your own needs. When you are dealing with others who have problems you need helping skills which show caring and support for the other person whilst also enabling them to find their own solutions to their problems.
A helping relationship is one in which a person helps another to develop and grow as a human being. All your relationships can have this element in them at some time – relationships with your loved ones, the people you work with, even with people you don’t like or people who are complete strangers to you. We have in our society many “helping” professions in which people are trained in some way to help others in need. But many studies show that it is from within our own circle of family, friends and acquaintances that we are most likely to get the help we really need.
Most of us have known, at some time or another, someone that we could “talk” to, who “understood” us and who we felt “safe” with. This sort of person is straight, honest and open with us; we trust them to tell us the truth. They care about us and don’t get sucked into our problems. They are not depressed by our depression or fearful of our fear. They empathise with how we feel and what is happening to us and that helps us to understand ourselves and our problems better. We are not threatened by them, they don’t judge us and they accept the differences and changes in us.
These are qualities that we all display towards someone at some time in our lives and they are the qualities that are most likely to provide worthwhile help and support to a person with a problem.
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