- Olga Zbarskaya, Ph.D
The Role of Productive Thinking for Adjustment to a Change and Problem Solving in Children and Adults
Albert Einstein said, “In the middle of difficulty lies opportunity,” a statement that is backed up by many historical demonstrations of misfortune becoming an opportunity for achievement. For instance, the biography of Abraham Lincoln, the sixteenth president of the United States, shows how productive decision-making and flexible adjustment to changes transform disappointments into accomplishments. While Lincoln’s hardships included losing a job, failing in business, having a nervous breakdown, and being defeated in his run for senate, his success included being elected to congress and, of course, eventually winning the presidency. Lincoln was a creative thinker who thought big and diligently prepared himself to solve problems. He wrote, “Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.”
In productive thinking—a process of recognizing the problem and finding the most effective solution at minimal cost—the final product of problem solving is new opportunity. Productive thinking requires thoroughly preparing, understanding the problem, and recognizing the aspects related to it. It is a powerful approach to solving problems more fruitfully, originally, and effectively. Productive thinking involves constructing, evaluating, and then implementing ideas that are effective and practical. A way of thinking that favors discovering opportunities should be taught starting from early childhood.
All educational curriculums should incorporate the art of thinking based on productive ideas. Children should learn divergent, convergent, pattern-recognizing, and evaluative thinking through play to maximize their problem-solving potential. Nurturing children’s ability to confront problems through multiple effective solutions reinforces creativity and helps them develop skills for facing and dealing with situations in the future. When individuals learn how to produce, elaborate, and evaluate ideas, they are most likely to develop more responses operative to difficult situations.
Productive thinking in adults includes reasoning based on the techniques of ordering, selecting, comparing, and contrasting. Both logic and intuition are important for productive thinking. Reasoning and analysis of the facts may promote solutions that have a high possibility of being productive; however, intuition, as the ability to draw conclusions based on impressions, also plays an important role in productive problem solving. Thinking across different modalities and creating possibilities through multiple perspectives is a critical step toward productive thinking. Problem solving itself may include hidden assumptions and overlooked risks. Examining various risk factors encourages better outcomes.
When an immediate response to the problem cannot be produced, such self-prompting strategies as recognizing the problem, writing it down, and looking at it from various perspectives should be implemented. Unearthing the causes of a problem and asking the right questions are essential for coming up with effective ideas. Complex problems are harder to visualize because they have more complicated organization. The number of elements contained in a given problem do not necessarily define its level of complexity; some difficult problems may consist of only a few elements. However, breaking a problem down into a few elements is an effective way to simplify the process of finding the best solution. Generating as many solutions as possible with no preliminary closure is essential because it increases the number of possibilities. Analyzing solutions and reevaluating the problem are two powerful tools for productive thinking.
The key to problem solving is defining the problem and identifying the root cause correctly. A cause and effect analysis that involves drawing pictures and diagrams can help with this. Productive thinking in problem solving is rooted in multiple tools, such as reinforcing positivity, staying open-minded, and sustaining neutrality. Defining the problem and processing it step by step while challenging assumptions and focusing on solutions contribute toward productive problem solving. Choosing and then verifying the best solutions may lead to a reevaluation of the problem and the formation of a new perspective, which provides more possibilities. Negativity is a serious obstacle in problem solving and may produce a counterproductive way of thinking.
Creative people adapt to different situations and reach their goals through productive ideas. An overall strategy of adopting new attention patterns and turning negative thoughts and characteristics into advantages entails such specific approaches as being flexible in decision-making, making unusual connections, putting ideas into perspective, forming opinions, and classifying and evaluating information.
In my training sessions on positive thinking, I usually ask my participants to pick three personal characteristics that, from their perspective, are obstacles to an outstanding performance. Then I show them how to rethink each characteristic and turn it into an advantage. Transforming defeats into victory requires a mental switch—changing your perception of yourself from “weak” to humble, from disorganized to creative, from stubborn to dedicated, from reckless to adventurous. This exercise gives students a new perspective on their personality and empowers them to succeed.
Productive thinking techniques are essential for people in crisis. Vulnerable individuals can learn to respond to difficult situations and adjust to changes more effectively through creative problem solving. When I delivered a presentation on teaching children creative problem solving to a group of foster parents, I provided them with multiple techniques, described in this article, to engage their foster children in productive thought. This training also aimed to explain the complex issues children face in foster care. I emphasized how multiple changes affect foster children who are in need of a stable and safe environment. We discussed how possible changes related to foster placement, reunion with siblings, foster family relocation, or arguments between foster parent and biological parent create further traumatic experience for a child in care. I encouraged foster parents to teach their children to work through the changes and view the world as full of opportunity.
When children are going through multiple changes, they are stressed and they feel a “fight, flee, or freeze” response. Under these circumstances, it is difficult to think and make good choices. I provided my participants with techniques to help their children to describe their feelings and frustrations and to reshape their vision of the future. After two months, I followed up on the results of my training. The foster parents reported that they implemented discussions lasting ten to fifteen minutes a day, along with exercises for the older foster children and games for the younger ones, to promote productive ideas. In teaching their children how to look at the same problem from multiple perspectives and see possibilities in difficult situations, they created diagrams, for the older children, and drew pictures, for the younger ones, of the problem and solutions. These techniques helped foster children not only to adjust to new situations but also to understand and respond appropriately to their own emotions.
A new condition either requires immediate adjustment or situates an individual at the edge of chaos. A foster child, for example, may experience multiple changes in a very short period of time, including being abused by a biological parent, removed from home, interviewed by different individuals, and placed in a new setting, sometimes experiencing further conflict in the new environment and possibly being removed again. The multiple secondary changes can include the loss of parents, a pet, friends, and traditions. As a result, vulnerable children become victims of unresolved conflicts that build up in them in a snowball effect.
Changes require productive thinking for problem solving within a reasonable timeframe. In a training session for foster parents on creative adjustment to change, I offered participants a variety of exercises, for the older children, and games, for the younger ones, to help them flex their minds and adapt to different situations through role play. They later shared with me the results of implementing role play wherein every child could change his role and explain the feelings associated with “wearing someone else’s shoes” while focusing on the positive solutions. The foster parents emphasized that these exercises helped them, as well as their children, to practice flexibility, adaptation, and focusing on opportunities.
Through my teaching experience and working with licensed professionals and administrators in NYC, I always paid close attention to the matters of problem solving and decision-making. During my training sessions on productive thinking for problem solving, I explained to my students that in order to think productively, they should ensure the space around the problem is minimized to the nearest surrounding. I requested that members of the audience write down a problem and draw a circle around it with the immediate surroundings and sub-issues that can potentially help to find resources for problem solving, as shown in Figure 1. This exercise is a great technique to filter the surrounding subissues and narrow them down to the related conditions only. This diagram can be extended to the second circle with the more distant surrounding problems as needed.
In two months, most of the participants reported that this training helped them adjust to the multiple changes, including new requirements, document format, and electronic devices. The post-evaluation survey demonstrated that most of the administrators and licensed child care providers found most of the training techniques beneficial, including identifying root cause, evaluating surrounding issues, solving the problem in the environmental context, and turning issues into possibilities.
Assessing the surrounding related subconditions should start from the immediate ones, identified in the first circle. Every related condition inside of the circle should be a potential recourse to assess or solve the major problem. This tool gives an opportunity to set the boundaries of the problem, zoom in on it, and identify as many related issues as possible. Solving subissues and considering the surrounding will result in solving the major problem. The outer circle consists of possible solutions related to the major problem and accounting for one or more of the surrounding resources. The more environmental components included in the solution, the broader it is.
Figure 1: Assessing surrounding and solutions
Changes pertain to all spheres of life. A child starts going to a day care center, an adult is promoted or loses a job, a teenager is transferred to a new school, adults gets divorced, a family immigrates to a new country. Even a positive change, such as getting married or getting promoted, may be stressful due to the whole range of new arrangements and potential losses. New places, new people, and new requirements simply remove a person from an accustomed and well-balanced organization of parameters. Difficulty adjusting does not always correspond to drastic changes. Minor alterations also may disturb the emotional status quo and push the individual out of the comfort zone, increase anxiety, and promote a stress response.
Greater changes, whether they occur in our personal lives or organizations we are part of, create greater disturbances. Having a positive attitude and productive thinking techniques makes adjustment to change more endurable. I teach human services professionals a Sanctuary Model course to promote trauma-informed and evidence-supported principles of operation for human services institutions. The Sanctuary Model explains how trauma and stress impact individual and organizational performance. The course consists of practical techniques for helping people adjust to a change in a healthier way.
The goal of the Sanctuary Model, developed by Dr. Sandra L. Bloom, is to promote a harmonious and safe environment for employees and service recipients in a socially responsible and democratic manner to achieve the best therapeutic outcomes (2013). Trauma-informed service delivery is essential and promotes emotional adjustment and planning for the future. I teach my participants how change, even for the positive, may be perceived as a loss. Usually, change results in negativity because it pertains to either giving up or abandoning an accustomed way of doing or perceiving something that was a matter of stability or comfort. Change may require a sacrifice or expense, and therefore, individual reactions to change vary from confusion and grief to frustration and aggression. Sanctuary Model is a great tool for dealing with changes and making better decisions.
All individuals are conditioned by patterns of thinking. In order to embrace change, it is essential to change your perception, thoughts, and priorities, because change requires making sense of events and conditions in a new way. It may invite you to perceive accustomed environments in a new way. Transforming patterns and altering a mode of thinking are difficult and necessitate that one have very specific goals. Vague ideas create confusion; therefore, new associations must be found if one is to succeed. A new thought pattern can be built by reinforcing positive thinking and reshaping negative generalizations of previous experiences (Author, 2015). A new way of thinking requires recognizing old patterns, replacing them with productive patterns, setting new goals, and mapping the route to success. Positive change begins with productive patterns of thinking, hunting the opportunities, and making an effort to improve the situation.
The stage during which one prepares for change may give rise to such responses as confusion, fear of the unknown, loss of welfare, and negative predictions. Responses from the stage of anticipating change may entail exhaustion, depression, incompetency, and devastation. Responses from the post-change stage can manifest as loss, anger, uncertainty, instability, discomfort, and lack of prediction. Conflict resolution based on productive thinking in a timely manner helps people work through the stages of change and then see new opportunities. Skills associated with this type of conflict resolution include goal setting, planning, self-determination, effective communication, and self-advocacy. Rephrasing the change or problem may promote a different response; therefore, using positive affirmation and enthusiastic definitions provide a better opportunity for problem solving and healthier adjustment. Focusing on positive attributes of a change and trying to rework one’s attitude toward negative effects through productive thinking and planning is a key to healthy adjustment to a change.
Adjusting to change—positive or negative—can be stressful, and most people have difficulty adjusting to life’s transitions. A fear of the unknown may result in anxiety, fear, and depression. Major life changes may disengage coping mechanisms and may make it impossible to enjoy food, naps, relationships, and much more. Nevertheless, change should be perceived positively—as a learning experience and opportunity for growth. In order to gain the knowledge or develop the skills that can accompany change, one must accept the situation and move toward possible solutions.
Creative adjustment is one of the most important processes in life. We adjust to our rapidly changing surroundings on a daily basis. Furthermore, any adaptation is a learning experience. People who easily adapt tend to be more open-minded, enjoy experimenting, and move onward without fear of making mistakes. On the other hand, people who have difficulty adjusting perceive changes as traumatic experiences. They may feel hopeless, powerless, fearful, and depressed. Unwelcomed change may overlap with shock and denial. Individuals may enter a stage wherein they try to protect their accustomed conditions. These impulses may promote distress, blame, and even anger. Individuals in this category may predict negative outcomes and possible threats, losing their optimism in the process. Lack of vision and ability to make good choices may result in resistance, a condition that is unhealthy for the mind and may require professional assistance.
Productive thinking requires focusing on the goal and balancing priorities. Overthinking, which decreases effectiveness, can result in devastation. One tool for increasing efficacy of thought is keeping elaborating and adjusting your own definitions of the problem, its root cause, and possible solutions. Writing these descriptions down on multiple post cards and creating a collage out of them can help in analyzing the issue from various points of view. Using time management techniques and setting deadlines will help to keep the process focused. Asking relevant questions is very important in achieving and understanding the issue. Consistency and simplicity can stretch the number of great solutions to a surprising extent. Short mental breaks promote reactivation of focus and motivation.
Productive thinking can minimize the negative impact of change by switching the reaction dynamic from adjustment to negativity to creative adaption to opportunity. On this stage, the process of assessing surroundings and solutions of the problem (Figure 1) can be extended to the circle of new perspectives and possible benefits (Figure 2). In addition, it is healthier to embrace the change and perceive it as opportunity than to view it as a threat. Avoidance or denying adjustment is less effective compared to the productive or active adaptation. Focusing on emotions and negative feelings promoted by the change is not as effective as concentrating on challenges and using productive thinking to deal with them.
Figure 2: Problem as New Perspectives and Possibilities.
Asking the right questions is another key component productive thinking. Forming persuasive and provocative questions (critical thinking) along with restating barriers between these questions and combining them (creative thinking) is a great strategy for productive decision-making. Productive thinking can be organized in different ways based on the goal, individual characteristics, impact, urgency, and surroundings. In the progression of productive thinking, a problem is logically transformed into a product or new opportunity, as shown in Figure 3. The ability to comprehend important characteristics of the problem leads to productive ideas. Productive thinking furthermore involves an instant assessment of the operation and resolving perceptive of a novel condition. Productive thinking is a mindset. It is a set of skills that allows people to increase their productivity and success. Productive thinking is based on both creative and critical thinking. Therefore, it relies on thinking from multiple perspectives about the problem, its cause, and its outcomes along with comparing, contrasting, analyzing, evaluating, and selecting the best options for implementation.
Figure 3: Productive Thinking Cycle
Productive adjustment, imbedded in productive thinking, involves finding resources for goal-driven actions that address the issue. Adaptive characteristics and productivity result in successful problem solving. Perceiving a change as a challenge and finding creative strategies improve performance outcomes. When presenting for leaders on decision-making in NYC, I stress the importance of productive, goal-oriented thinking and appropriate responses to changes. Complex situations in organizations require collective awareness and productive-thinking strategies to re-establish balance and performance. A new condition requires adjusting capacities for adaptive decision-making based on positivity and productive thinking. Creative adaptation refers to the process of modification of the perception, structure, or conditions to fit into or comply with the new requirements. How one personally reacts, including whether one is able to remain yielding to the situation, plays an important role in modifications and adjustment to individual and organizational changes. A problem-solving process, in the face of adjustment to change, should be improved upon based on the techniques identified above. This approach to problem solving will result in productive ideas in which the final product of thinking is the new opportunity, as identified in Figure 3. Intuitive consideration of merging opportunities, along with critical reasoning, openness to experience, and the ability to turn problems into possibilities, is an essential tool for successful performance and satisfaction.
Bloom, S.L. (2013). Creating Sanctuary: Toward the Evolution of Sane Societies, Second Edition, New York: Routledge.
Zbarskaya, O. (2015). Beyond Perception: A Guide to Creative Thinking. Manuscript.