Techniques Youth Development Professionals and Key Leaders Can Use to Navigate Difficult Problems

4-H Youth Development
Jason A. Hedrick, Ohio State University Extension, Putnam County, 4-H Youth Development

Youth development professionals and key leaders working in organizations that serve youth understand the value and importance of mobilizing others to achieve goals beyond their own capabilities. With proper leadership, an effective volunteer base is a valuable resource for 4-H clubs, committees, and 4-H special interest groups. Very few organizations value this workforce more than 4-H. The success of 4-H depends on the caliber of volunteers who manage the foundation of the programs for which they volunteer. Problems with volunteers can oftentimes be strenuous for club advisors and youth development professionals. Keeping volunteers aligned with organizational expectations, 4-H philosophies, and goals can be a challenge, especially when conflict complicates these relationships. Solving interpersonal problems and conflict are among the challenges of working with volunteers. How do youth development professionals and key leaders empower volunteers to find viable solutions to problems while maintaining the philosophies of their groups?

The ability to solve problems efficiently and effectively is extremely valuable. Positive management of problematic situations can retain quality volunteers, increase ownership of volunteers' efforts, and strengthen 4-H groups. Many techniques can be used to manage conflict, but the one described in this publication can be empowering to volunteers, adaptable, and easily implemented by youth development professionals and key leaders.

History and Basic Principles of Solution-Focused Therapy

Solution-focused therapy (SFT) has its roots in clinical social work and was developed by Steve de Shazer (1940–2005) and Insoo Kim Berg (1934–2007) in the 1980s (de Shazer et al. 1986). The approach is goal-driven and focuses on strengths such as the good that is happening rather than on weaknesses such as the problems that are occurring (Wallerstedt and Higgins, 2000). While SFT is primarily utilized by therapists as a tool to guide clients, its foundations can also be adapted easily for use in other disciplines. Since its origins in the mid-1980s, SFT has proved to be an effective intervention across a whole range of problematic presentations (Iveson, 2002). The techniques used in this approach are extremely adaptable to many situations, can be applied quickly, and do not require a long-term investment of time to find solutions to problems. More importantly, the techniques actively engage people in finding the solution or solving the problem. The process empowers people to take ownership of a situation and to outline their own steps in solving the conflict.

Miracle Questions

Probably the most well-known and popular intervention within the SFT approach is the miracle question (de Shazer, 1988). The miracle question is a method of framing questions to help the person presenting the problem to envision how the future will be different when the conflict/problem is no longer present. During this process of questions, goals can often be identified. Careful consideration to how the question is framed will help people move away from what the problem is, and focus on how to begin solving the issue. For example, a 4-H parent might be frustrated with teen officers in a 4-H club and might complain about it to a 4-H club advisor. The miracle question can be framed by the 4-H advisor and might look similar to the following: "If a miracle happened tomorrow so that you no longer felt that the 4-H club officers do not follow through with their responsibilities, what would you see differently? What would be the first signs that a change had occurred within the club? What would 4-H members be doing differently in the club? What would you be doing differently?"

The use of these questions reframes the problem into positive discussion. Furthermore, the 4-H advisor engages the parent to identify, on his/her own, what changes need to occur to begin to move the club toward greater effectiveness.

Scaling Questions

Scaling questions can be used to identify useful differences for volunteers, and might help to establish goals as well. Scaling questions also can help people set their own goals incrementally. When these questions are framed by key leaders or youth development professionals, people are enabled to focus on steps that can eventually lead to larger, overall change. The range of a scale can be defined in different ways each time the question is asked, but typically the range occurs from "the worst the problem has ever been" (zero or one) to "the best that things could ever possibly be" (ten). The person presenting the problem is asked to rate their current position on the scale, and questions are then used to help the person identify resources. For example, if a parent is upset that club meetings are not conducted properly and has rated meetings as three on a scale, a 4-H advisor might ask the following: "What's stopping our 4-H club meetings from slipping one point lower on the scale?"

Scaling questions that seek exceptions to the problem might be framed as follows: "On a day when our club meeting is one point higher on the scale, what would tell you that it was a ‘one point higher' meeting?"

Scaling questions that describe a preferred future might be framed as follows: "Where on the scale would be ‘good enough'? What would a club meeting at that point on the scale look like?"

Exception-Seeking Questions

When people present problems, the discussion of the issue is typically focused on what is going wrong. The objective of the exception-seeking questions strategy is to urge the person to think about times when the problem is less severe or absent. Exception-seeking questions help people self-identify what has worked in the past, and they can be used to encourage clientele to repeat such behaviors. Simply asking the person to outline a time when the problem did not exist and then encouraging him/her to describe what different circumstances existed in that case can expose significant behavioral changes that can be tried to resolve the issue.

Here is an example: "I understand that you and Mary are having problems working together in our 4-H club. You and Mary have been helping our 4-H club for many years. Can you think of times when you worked well together? Describe how that worked for you? When problems did not exist, what were you doing then?"


At some point, the business of working with people will lend itself to mediating difficult interpersonal situations. Finding the right tools to solve these problems is of critical importance to a volunteer organization's overall positive presence within a community. When difficult situations occur, it is common for people to focus on the cause of the problem, how it started, who did and said what, and how these things deviated from normal expectations. Generally, people have preconceived ideas about how things should work; when things do not work that way, a problem occurs.

One of the biggest hurdles in solving problems is getting those involved to move away from reliving the issue so that they can start thinking about solving it. By utilizing SFT, key leaders and youth development professionals can efficiently transition difficult problems into solutions. As a result, groups will be better equipped to avoid tension and ongoing conflict.


de Shazer, S. Clues: Investigating Solutions in Brief Therapy. New York: Norton, 1988.
de Shazer, S., et al. "Brief Therapy: Focused Solution Development." Family Process 25 (1986): 207–221.
Iveson, C. "Solution-Focused Brief Therapy: Advances in Psychiatric Treatment." Journal of Continuing Professional Development 8 (2002): 149–156.
Wallerstedt, C. and P. Higgins. "Solution-Focused Therapy: Is It Useful for Nurses in the Workplace?" AWHONN Lifelines 4.1 (2000): 46–47.
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