Look for positive and negative reinforcers in the environment. “I often post a link to Facebook, and then I keep returning to Facebook throughout the day because I want to see whether it’s accumulated new likes and comments.” Here, logging on to Facebook after posting a link keeps getting reinforced by the accumulation of comments and likes, which provide a reward each time that the page is opened and there’s a new one. Could something be done to eliminate those reinforcers? (“If anyone sees me responding to a comment or posting a link, don’t like it but do remind me that I was supposed to be working.“) Or maybe provide reinforcers for something else? (“For each ten minutes that passes without me logging onto Facebook, could you please come give me a hug?“)
Be specific about the causes of emotional reactions. “My boss is so full of himself, it drives me nuts.” Exactly how does the full-of-himself-ness manifest? If the exact behavior is “he often interrupts”, maybe something could be done about that thing in particular. Best case: the boss comes from a conversational culture where interrupting is normal, and hasn’t even realized that someone would consider it rude—but this would have been impossible for the others to suggest if the problem description would only have been on the level of “he’s so full of himself”.
This is also a useful technique for reducing your own annoyance at others, even if it was just something you did in your head. “I’m getting frustrated now because that person is talking really loudly and I would like to read.” Breaking down an atomic “AAAAAGH I’M SO FRUSTRATED” into a “I’m feeling [specific emotion] because [specific cause] and [that violates my desire/need to something]” is not only useful for debugging, it can also relieve the frustration by itself.
Assume that problems won’t fix themselves. In one session, someone says they intend to implement some change for next week’s meeting. In the next session, they say, “yeah, that plan didn’t really work out, but I was kinda busy and distracted this week. I’m going to try harder.”
Chances are, if they were busy and distracted this week, they’re likely to be busy and distracted the next week, too. “I’m going to try harder” often translates either as “I don’t actually care about solving this problem but want to give the impression that I do”, or alternatively, “I don’t actually know how to fix this but I’m going to try again the same way, in the hopes of magically getting a different result now”. Assuming that the person really does want to solve their problem, try to figure out exactly what went wrong and how it could be avoided in the future.
Ask, “is there a more general problem here?” Someone wants to cut down on the amount of money that they spend on fast food. One day when they’re coming home from work they walk past a hamburger place, are tempted by the advertisements, and go there to eat. This happens several times.
The specific problem in this case would be “I always end up eating at the Burger King on the 27th street on my way home”. The more general form of the problem might be something like “each time I walk past a fast food place when I’m hungry, I end up eating there”. General solutions might be “pick a route that allows you to avoid seeing fast food places when you’re hungry” and “make sure to carry something with you that allows you stave off the worst of the hunger until you’re home”.
Focusing. Someone is having difficulties deciding whether to try to solve a problem or whether to accept its consequences and let it be. One approach would be to have them verbalize all the reasons why the unsolved issue bothers them, and then say out loud, “having considered all of these consequences of the problem, I find that they’re acceptable and it’s better to just let this be”. Does saying that feel right to them, or does something about it feel wrong? What if they were to say, “having considered all of these consequences of the problem, I find that they’re unacceptable and I want to solve the problem”, instead? Would that feel right or wrong?
Quick Murphyjitsu. After you’ve come up with a plan, it may be useful to have the other person do a quick Murphyjitsu on it. How surprised would they be if this plan failed? If not particularly, is there any obvious failure mode that comes to mind and which could be fixed?
Check that the person remembers something actionable. Sometimes discussion may suggest some actionable things, then drift to e.g. more general discussion of the problem which doesn’t provide as many concrete suggestions. If this happens, make sure that the person whose problems are being debugged still remembers the actionable suggestions they got earlier on.