Solving Personal Problems with Anticonventional Thinking

Anticonventional thinking (ACT) is more than an effective alternative to brainstorming. It is also a powerful technique that can be applied to all kinds of problem solving, including personal ones. In particular, deconstructing problems in order to understand them better, is a powerful technique we often forget to use when trying to solve our own problems or help friends seeking advice. In this article, you will look at helping a friend work through problems. But the lessons can easily be applied to solving your own personal problems.

Let’s imagine two friends, Abigail and Betty, who are talking about a problem facing Abigail. Typically in such a scenario, Betty will take one of two paths in this situation. Either she will listen attentively and offer sympathy and understanding; or she can offer advice. However, if Betty offers advice, there is a great danger it will be the wrong advice! Why? Because she will be responding to Abigail’s initial explanation of her problem. But, as ACT teaches us, very often the perceived problem is very different to the actual problem.

For example, let us imagine that Abigail says, “Ever since Charles and I split up, I’ve been feeling so lonely. I just work, go home and do nothing. I’m watching too much television and eating a lot of junk food. Why, I’ve put on two kilos since he left!”

Misunderstood Problems Elicit Poor Advice

Betty’s initial response, if she wants to offer a solution, would probably be to advise Abigail to go out more often and meet new people. Perhaps take up computer dating. But this could easily be the wrong advice.

Anticonventional thinking teaches that you should focus your creative energy not on generating lots of ideas, but on understanding the problem and reformulating it into a provocative challenge. Once you do this, creative solutions come easily.

So, if Betty truly wants to provide Abigail with useful advice, Betty needs to help Abigail deconstruct her problem. The way she can do this is by asking questions, starting with the five whys.

Why do you feel lonely?

Like I said, I work, I go home. I eat I watch TV. I am not going out anywhere.

Why don’t you go out anywhere?

When I do go out, I never have much fun. The people at work often go out on a Friday night and they invite me along. But they just drink and eat and talk about work. After a half hour, I just want to go home.

Why is that?

And so on...

Betty can also ask questions, such as:

  • What would be your ideal evening out?
  • What do you like to talk about when you are with friends?
  • Why do you not organise an evening out yourself?

After a few questions, it may transpire that Abigail’s real problem is not so much loneliness as that she feels she is not doing anything significant in her life. As a result, her self-esteem is low and, going out and drinking just reinforces the feeling of not accomplishing anything.

With this information, Abigail can focus on building up her self-esteem by finding some meaningful projects or activities. What these may be will probably become clearer through additional questioning.

Once Abigail is feeling better about herself, she will doubtless feel more confident about going out or, alternatively, may feel better about being alone.

If you think about it, the suggestion to “offer to take on a major project at work” or “write that novel you’ve been meaning to write” might seem strange, unconventional solutions to the percieved problem of loneliness. But, as we have seen, the perceived problem is rather different to the real problem.


If you are, or a friend is, facing problems. Deconstructing the problem in order to understand it better is far more effective than trying to find quick solutions. And if you are helping out a friend, the best thing you can do is ask questions. Not only will this help your friend solve her problem, but asking questions also demonstrates that you care!


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Jeffrey Baumgartner
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Erps-Kwerps (near Leuven & Brussels) Belgium




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