Here’s a mildly unpleasant thought experiment. Sorry to do this to you, but it is going somewhere and it does get better, honest.
Imagine meeting one of your friends for lunch, and they spend a whole hour telling you about everything that’s wrong with their life – in great detail. How would you feel at the end of that hour? Drained, miserable, bored, discouraged? Well, if you would feel like that just from spending that time listening to someone’s problems, imagine how much more miserable the friend would be after talking about nothing but their problems for an hour.
Now instead, imagine that your friend is telling you all about how things are going to be when they have solved their problems, and how they want things to be. How are you going to feel after an hour of that? Inspired, enthused, happy for them, uplifted? Well if you feel that way, imagine how much better your friend is going to feel – since it’s their life they are talking about.
Our habitual impulse when we have a problem is to spend time thinking about that problem to find ways of trying to solve it. The downside of focusing on our problems is that we get more involved in them the more we think about them. A problem can seem to expand until it takes up all of our attention and there’s no room to think about anything else.
And of course the more we think about a problem, the worse we tend to feel. In NLP terms we would say that we get into an ‘unresourceful state’, where it’s harder to find the skills and abilities that come easily to us when we are having a good day.
With simple problems it’s often glaringly obvious what we need to do to fix them. So we fix them, and move on. Maybe it’s so quick and easy to fix that we don’t even register it as a problem. But many problems are more complex. So how can we engage with those and still stay resourceful enough to give ourselves the best chance of finding a way out?
The answer is simple. Once you’re aware of the problem, stop trying to fix it. Instead, turn your attention to what it will be like when the problem is solved. What do you want instead of the problem?
Focusing on the solution (without worrying for the moment about how you are going to get there) does a number of things. Immediately you start to feel better, because what you’re thinking about is pleasant rather than unpleasant. This makes it easier to access your inner resources.
Also, the more fully you imagine the solution and the more detail you go into, the more you are making the connections in your brain that you will need to actually make the solution happen. This will improve your performance, as sports psychology has shown. The vast majority of successful athletes use mental rehearsal, and studies repeatedly show that mental rehearsal enhances performance (see for example http://tinyurl.com/2zwavb).
Most importantly, if you want to find a solution, the best place to look for it is anywhere but in the problem. Once you know where you want to get to, you can start finding your way there. Once you have the idea of your solution, you can start making it real.
Solution-focused therapy, developed by Steve de Shazer and Insoo Kim Berg at the Brief Family Therapy Center, Milwaukee, is based on these principles. The beauty of solution focus is that it’s simple to use. Although it originated as a therapy method, it can be used in coaching, in solving business problems, and you can use it to help yourself. As a method, it fits very nicely with NLP as it shares a number of assumptions.
Berg and de Shazer developed a number of simple and elegant methods to help us turn away from habitual problem focus towards solutions. I’ll introduce a couple more in future newsletters – this time let’s look at one of the most powerful problem-solving methods there is: the ‘Miracle Question’.
Exercise: The Miracle Question
If you have some problem in mind, ask yourself this question: Let’s imagine that while you’re asleep tonight a miracle happens and the problem is completely solved. You don’t realise this, of course, because you’re still asleep – so when you wake up what will be the first thing that tells you that this miracle has happened? What else will tell you?
Give yourself some time to answer this (especially if your first answer is “I don’t know” – just asking the question will get your mind moving in the right direction both consciously and unconsciously. Write down everything that you think of. You are beginning to build the solution (or solutions) in your mind.
NLP buffs will notice that being asked this question shifts the listener from a “problem frame” to an “outcome frame”. Framing your thoughts like this is important because it influences the way you think about things, making it much more likely that your imagination will produce something that will help you.
A couple of supplementary questions you can ask:
1. Who else would notice that this miracle has happened? What would tell them?
This question encourages you to step outside of yourself and think about what would be different in your observable behaviour if the problem were solved. Once you’re aware of this, it’s a very short step to beginning to act differently.
2. Does anyone else have to change in order for this miracle to happen?
Out of dozens of clients I’ve asked this question, everyone has said ‘no’. Of course, having just described your answer to the miracle question makes it a lot easier to realise that you are able to make the changes you need in your life.
Given a goal to focus on, your unconscious mind will surprise you by noticing opportunities and coming up with creative ways to get there. So why not try out the miracle question, either by yourself by writing your answers or by getting a friend to ask you the questions. And do email me to let me know how you get on.
In a future posting we’ll look at another powerful tool from Solution Focus – “Scaling Questions“.
Note: The thought experiment at the beginning of this article is adapted from the start of ‘Words Were Originally Magic‘ by Steve de Shazer. It’s a great book; it does get a little bogged down in a discussion of post-structuralist philosophy but soon recovers when he gets into describing the model, applications and therapy transcripts. You can order it from Amazon.uk or from Amazon.com or from Amazon.ca.
Further note: while researching this article I discovered from the Brief Family Therapy Center web site that Insoo Kim Berg passed away on January 10th 2007. I hadn’t registered this because I was on holiday for most of January. Both Insoo and Steve (d. 2005) made an enormous contribution to development of psychotherapy. On the site you can find some DVDs and downloadable articles about solution focused therapy.