Problem Solving - the basic process of social work practice

The phases of the problem solving process

    Different authors prefer different terminology, description and number of phases for the problem solving process. Say, John Dewey chose:

    1. recognizing the difficulty
    2. defining the difficulty
    3. developing possible solutions
    4. selecting an optimal solution
    5. carrying out the solution

Compton and Galaway chose:

    1. Engagement
    2. Assessment
    3. Intervention or action
    4. Evaluation

The PPPS model for social policies uses:

    1. Problem definition
    2. Policy
    3. Programming
    4. Service Delivery
    5. Evaluation


Stress and Coping

This is another group of social work literature dealing mainly with how clients deal with problem solving. Strictly speaking, the problem solving process described by John Dewey (plus the obviously missing component "evaluation") is a general problem solving process not just applicable to social work practice and such description can be equally applicable to the problem solving process of clients. Anyway, the concepts of stress and coping are also very useful in understanding the general problem solving process.

The general problem solving process as described by Compton and Galaway is basically a "rational model", whereas the stress and coping literature also deal with the issue of emotional responses in the problem situation.

Stress is a condition when uncertainty or risk is perceived in meeting our wants or towards our well being. Examination is a source of stress, or "stressor". The possibility of failing the examination or the failure of obtaining good grades produces "stress". Facing the same event, say examination, different people will experience different level of stress. For those who do care much about the examination or is so confident about one's own ability, there would be hardly any stress. For those, who cares and yet have very little confidence will experience a high level of stress.

Coping is to deal with the stress. The ways we handled coping are called "coping mechanisms". The application of coping mechanisms for different persons in different problem situation will depend on our personality, the appraisal of the problem situation, the resources that we have, and our repertoire (patterns of behaviour that we use to act).

We may perceive the stressor as a threat, a challenge or an opportunity. The perception of a threat would usually arouse negative reactions such as "fight" or "flight". "Fight" responses are usually aggressive and confrontational. Whereas, "flight" is usually escapist, i.e. avoiding the situation such as running away physically or emotional detached from the situation when physical absence from the situation is not possible.

The perception of challenge will create drives to gear up oneself to deal with the situation, such as gathering information, shape up existing skills or learning new skills, trying harder, etc. Challenges are seen as taxing our abilities and yet apparently can be overcome.

When situation is perceived as an opportunity that is desirable and yet can only be obtained with adequate efforts invested, the individual will appear to be optimistic and feel at ease. Loss of opportunities can be quite unpleasant yet less stressful than failing to deal with a threat or meeting a challenge.

Resources available to us are crucial to our ability to cope with the stress situation and solving the problem. Different people are endowed with different resources, such as financial, knowledge, wisdom, social network, etc. Social work process also helps to increase these resources, such as providing knowledge and skills, suggesting alternatives, and bringing other resources (e.g. financial, services, etc.) to the client.

We have behavioural patterns, i.e. repertoire. We tend to adopt the same pattern of behaviour to deal with situations that are similar. When this set of repertoire is limited, our ability to deal a variety of situations will be limited. Similarly, if we are too rigid in our repertoire, i.e. unable to modify our behaviour when the situation changes, we would not be able to deal the situation adequately. Expanding our repertoire and awareness of our own repertoire are important for use to deal the ever-changing world.




Additional note on the issue of terminology - client, customers or service users

Compton and Galaway distinguished four different terms, namely, client, respondent, prospect, and applicant. In Hong Kong, the term "service user" is frequently used as a generic term to describe those using social welfare or social work services. The Social Welfare Department chooses to use the term "customer", as the "customer" is always right.