Building communication bridges with Collaborative Problem Solving

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Collaborative Problem Solving (CPS) was developed by Dr. Ross Greene and Dr. Stuart Ablon and their associates at Massachusetts General Hospital and the Harvard Medical School.

This method of resolving conflict was originally developed for working with discouraged children and youth.

In Dr. Ross’s book ‘The Explosive Child,’ he advocates from the position that “kids do well if they can” and he and his associates firmly believe that CPS can help mental-health professionals, parents, caregivers, and teachers reduce and diffuse communication problems with children who consistently struggle with low frustration tolerance and emotional regulation in navigating their day-to-day lives.

CPS essentially teaches how a parent or caregiver can resolve conflict with a child in mutually satisfactory ways.

Dr. Green refers to CPS as “Plan B” (collaborate with the explosive child) versus Plan A (an adult imposing his or her will on the child with a consequence). Here is Plan B summarized, step by step:

  • Empathy Step – gathering information about and understanding your child’s concern on a given problem.
  • Define the Problem Step – being specific about your concerns or perspectives on the same problem.
  • The Invitation – brainstorming with your child to find solutions that are realistic and mutually satisfactory.

CPS is now being used in a wider range of settings with diverse populations i.e., other treatment populations in mental health, residential treatment facilities, hospitals, corrections facilities business world etc.

CPS tips:

  • Develop accurate empathy through uncensored “Active Listening.” This is a skill that takes much practice but can be developed through the process of guessing and questioning until you are mirroring the essence of the speaker’s thoughts and feelings.

This technique was originally introduced by Carl Rogers (1902-1987) known as the father of client-centered therapy. Throughout his career he dedicated himself to humanistic psychology and is well known for his theory of personality development.

Rogers stated, “To be effective at all in active listening, one must have a sincere interest in the speaker. We all live in glass houses as far as our attitudes are concerned. They always show through. And if we are only making a pretense of interest in the speaker, he will quickly pick this up, either consciously or unconsciously. And once he does, he will no longer express himself freely.”

If you are really at odds with the speaker you will notice at first when you’re trying to mirror his or her view it feels as unnatural as it would doing a sailor dive (keeping your hands tight to your sides as you dive head first into deep water).

One of the best quotes I routinely refer to with clients struggling to empathize with another’s point of view is by Alfred Adler (1870– 1937) another pioneer in psychotherapy who encouraged anyone wanting to really understand someone’s else’s view to simply try “to see with the eyes of another, to hear with the ears of another, to feel with the heart of another.”

Active listening is not an easy skill to acquire. It demands practice. Helpful phrases that you can use to check with the speaker are: If I got this right you are saying ____? … and that makes you feel ____? … and … What I hear you saying is _____? … and that makes you feel ____? When the speaker confirms “yes that’s right” you are on the right track.

  • For step two, you essentially re-state the speaker’s view and your view and set the table for brainstorming. An example of this CPS step two with a child would sound like, “So I hear you saying that you don’t think you should have to brush your teeth before bed because you think the toothpaste tastes awful and this frustrates you?” After the child confirms (“yes, that’s right”), you would then state your view on the matter such as, “ But I think if you keep doing this it will lead to cavities and I am concerned about that … What do you think we can do about it?
  • Timing is everything. Plan ahead and use CPS with recurrent conflicts you are already having with your significant other(s) e.g., children, spouses, friends, boss etc. before it happens again verses trying to talk about it in the heat of the moment. For the example above you could start the CPS off by saying something like “Lately I’ve noticed that you are not brushing your teeth at bedtime … What’s up with that?” and then proceed through each step of CPS.
  • When defining the problem with the speaker, avoid using judgmental and discouraging phrases/words like should, have, always, never, and must when describing what you think about his or her behaviour in question e.g., “You never brush your teeth!”

A more effective method of communication when using CPS is being mindful to use the word “when” first, e.g., “When you don’t brush your teeth…”

  • Remember to separate the deed from the doer. You love the person but not the behaviour in question.
  • Maintain realistic expectations of the process of change. We are all imperfect creatures living in an imperfect world.

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