The primary aim of defining a problem is to explain the situation in terms that highlight the solvability of the problem. If a problem is poorly defined it may resist solution even if the person possesses the skills and supports needed to deal with it (p173). A well-defined problem will accurately describe the unmet want and point the person in the direction of effective ways to get their wants met.

Bedell and Lennox (1997) describe four key components or steps of problem definition (p173-181):

  • accurate description of an unmet want;
  • specification of the situation in which the problem occurs (e.g. who’s involved, where it takes place, what happens, when it occurs);
  • identification of the wants of others involved in the situation, and
  • formulation of a ‘how to’ statement.

A workable definition should include reference to what is wanted in the form of a how to statement.  The ‘how to’ statement is a declaration of the primary want in a form that is goal-directed and action- oriented (e.g. how can I bring about X, in situation Y?) (p178).

Selecting an appropriate want, and the way it is expressed are important. The want must refer to something that is achievable and that can be achieved directly through actions taken by the client rather than another person.

Clear reference to the context in which the problem is situated is important for ensuring that the wanted outcome is sufficiently specific to be achievable, and that key factors influencing the outcome can be addressed in the process of generating solutions.

The wants of others involved are often central factors in the situation. Awareness of the wants of others often provides insight into potential solutions.

However it is important that the want expressed in the ‘how to’ statement does not refer to the actions of others. It must be specific to actions or outcomes that are under the control of the client; we cannot control the behaviour of others (p180).

The material in C3ii is drawn from Bedell and Lennox (1997) Chapter 7 unless otherwise specified.