Determining Whose Problem It Is

In my last two blogs I shared information and ideas about when and how to transmit I-messages and why you-messages can be toxic to relationships. Today I am inviting my readers to explore the concept of Problem Ownership which can be helpful in determining how to transmit I-messages because most I-messages involve processing a problem. I encourage you to consider a recent problem that came up for you and/or your family and relate it to this information.

To decide who owns the problem, a person can do the following:

  • determine specifically what the problem is  
  • determine why it is a problem – what harm is being done, what value or right is being violated, what is unfair or unjust)
  • determine who owns the problem by determining:
    • who has the responsibility for the decision(s)
    • who has the power to make changes, corrections or amends.

Whenever a problem exists, one or more people own it.

The primary owner of the problem is the person for whom one or more of the following is true. They are the one who…

  • is most responsible for creating the problem
  • did not live up to related expectations, agreements, contracts, commitments and/or rules
  • is most affected and personally experiences the problem the most
  • should take responsibility for the impact of the problem
  • is obligated to work on managing or correcting the problem
  • is expected to make restitution and/or to find ways to prevent it from occurring in the future
  • has the power to make the necessary changes and/or restitution

It is NOT someone’s problem if they:

  • did not create the problem
  • have lived up to related expectations, agreements, contract, commitments and/or rules
  • are not directly affected or personally experiencing the problem
  • are not responsible for the impact of the problem
  • are not obligated to manage or correct the problem, or be expected to make restitution and/or to find ways to prevent it from occurring in the future
  • do not have the power to make the necessary changes and/or restitution

While sorting all this out it can be helpful to consider the differences between realities and problems. [Source: Kids Are Worth It by Barbara Coloroso]

When something is a done deal, it is a reality and not a problem. For example, the fact that it is raining and someone did not close the sunroof on the car is a reality. The resulting wet seats are reality.

There must be a potential for change for something to be a problem. The problem involves determining what to do about the wet seats. It may also be about how to prevent this from happening in the future. There is a potential to do something about protecting the interior of the car in the future, i.e., new rules about who is responsible, the consequence of having to dry the seats if someone forgets and the seats get rained on.

When something is a problem, there are decisions and approaches that can be taken to help fix it. You and whoever else is involved then move into considering who owns the problem and therefore is responsible and then how the problem can be addressed and hopefully resolved.

It can be very helpful to make sure you aren’t trying to problem solve a reality because you cannot fix something that’s already happened. It is also helpful not to spend time trying to assign blame as much as it is to engage in healthy problem solving: what can we do here to make this better?

Problems are a fact of life. We all grew up watching how our family members approached dealing with problems. If we were lucky, we saw healthy problem processing and problem solving. However many of us saw a lot more emotionality around problems, mainly anger, blaming, shaming, attacking and punishing. Learning to be effective in problem solving is not only helpful in the moment, but it can also provide safety for the relationship. Also it models how we can effectively respond to problems without harming anyone’s emotional health.

Invitation for Reflection

  1. If you considered a recent problem you and/or your family had, which principles in this blog provided clarification to you? What might you do differently the next time a problem like this occurs?
  2. What information in this blog can you share with your family to improve how you all address problems?
  3. How does recognizing the difference between realities and problems clarify why sometimes people are trying to “solve” realities?


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