This post may be a little too technical for most of you but I’m okay with that.
But before going on I have to give credit where it is due: the information in this post was originally brought to public attention by Richard Bandler and John Grinder a long time ago in their book(s), “The Structure Of Magic Vol I & II.” It’s an excellent book, but very hard to read and difficult to find a copy these days. Still highly recommended.
So back in the day there was a therapist who was renown for getting rapid results with difficult clients. Most of you know that therapists are essentially just “rent-a-friends” who you pay a couple hundred bucks a week and go complain to them for an hour at a time. They don’t really have any incentive to help you solve your problem, because if they did then you wouldn’t need to see them anymore and they’d lose a client.
My greatest weapon is your imagination
There are a few who are exceptions, and Virginia Satir was one of them.
Families would come to her with some dynamic issue(s) between family members and she would direct the group to elicit the solution through discussion. That doesn’t sound particularly amazing on the surface, but when you consider the fact that most of these families had been to countless therapists in addition to trying to solve their problems on their own for years, you begin to understand that Virginia Satir was doing something special.
Imagine that people come to you an emotional wreck, and through your use of language you are able to communicate with them in a way that enables them to reduce their problem from a nebulous swirl of debilitating emotions to something simple that can be solved in a short amount of time.
So how did she do it?
Simple: she used questions to get the client to state their problem in as specific terms as possible.
Let’s take a simple example. Say you’re hanging out with one of your friends and they say something like,
“I wish I could lose weight. I’ve tried EVERYTHING – diet, exercise, supplements.. but nothing works!”
On the surface, this may seem like a totally innocuous statement. In reality, it’s likely that both you and your friend know he or she is full of shit and just making excuses to make themselves feel better for being a lazy slob.
But are they really?
I personally believe that word choice is extremely important, and in a few paragraphs I’ll show you how to analyze your own statements and use Satir’s tactics to clarify your problem into something that can be solved.
But why is word choice so important? Because the words we use have a profound effect on our minds – a fact that most people ignore.
They throw around words carelessly, using metaphors and analogies to save themselves the trouble of thinking of an accurate explanation for what they really want to say. This laziness is the root of most people’s problem – they hamstring themselves with inappropriate descriptions of their situation, thus preventing themselves from finding (let alone looking for) the proper solution.
In my example above, we can clearly see that if we take this statement at face value (“I can’t lose weight no matter what and I’ve tried everything.”), then this problem has no solution. And because our brains will believe whatever we tell them, if this person moves their mouth and activates their vocal cords in a way that produces these words with audible sound, then they have virtually cemented this mindset in themselves and effectively blinded themselves to any solutions that may cross their path in the future.
Perception is reality
So what would Satir do? She would ask specific questions to get the client to clarify their statement. Like this:
Satir: So, what brings you here today?
Client: I wish I could lose weight. I’ve tried EVERYTHING – diet, exercise, supplements.. but nothing works!
Satir: I see. How much weight do you wish you could lose?
Client: How much? I don’t know. In high school I weighed 115. Now I weigh 165. So 50 lbs!
Satir: Well, “losing weight” could be losing one gram. Would you be happy if you lost one gram of weight?
Client: No, I want to lose more than that.
S: How much more?
C: I don’t know. I’ve never thought about it.
S: Okay. So think about it now. How much weight do you want to lose?
C (quiet for a few seconds): In high school I weighed 115. Now I’m around 170. So let’s say 50 lbs.
S: So you’re saying that you wish you could lose 50 lbs?
S: Okay, so your new statement is: “I wish I could lose 50 lbs. I’ve tried EVERYTHING – diet, exercise, supplements.. but nothing works!”
C (hesitant): Y-yes.
S: Alright. Now you say you’ve tried EVERYTHING.
C: Yes! I’ve have!
S: Everything? You’ve tried EVERYTHING?
C: Well.. maybe not everything. But seriously, I’ve tried dozens of diets and programs.
S: Dozens? Which ones? Let’s make a list.
C (visibly uncomfortable): Well, I mean maybe not dozens. But I’ve tried a lot.
S: Okay. Name them.
C: Um, well I’ve tried Atkins, Weight Watchers, um… I tried keto once.
S: Okay. That’s three. What else have you tried?
C: Ummmm…. I guess that’s it. But I’ve tried them a million times!
S: A million?
C: Okay fine, maybe not a million. But a lot.
S: How many is a lot?
C (getting frustrated): This isn’t fair! I don’t know how to answer your questions. I’m not good at this.
S: There is no “good” or “bad” at this. Just be specific with what you’re trying to say.
C: But I don’t know! I just hate working out, it makes me feel uncomfortable and my husband loves when I make traditional southern food which uses a lot of stuff that isn’t healthy.
S: Hmm. What do you mean you “hate working out?” When specifically did you have an experience where you hated working out?
C: Well one time I got a personal trainer and he made me run for 20 minutes on the treadmill. I TOLD him I have a bad knee but he made me do it anyway!
S: Okay. Any other times?
C (thinking): No, I guess not. That was the worst.
S: Interesting. So your problem now is this, “I wish I could lose 50 lbs. I tried Atkins, Weight Watchers and working out with a personal trainer once but didn’t find any of those enjoyable. Plus, I find it hard to stick to a diet because my husband wants me to cook traditional southern dishes that are very fattening.” Doesn’t that sound a lot different than your original statement?
C: Yes, I guess it does.
S: And the way we stated the problem just now – doesn’t that frame it in a way that is actually solvable?
C (nodding): Yeah. It does. You know it’s funny, but I actually feel like it’s not even really a problem anymore.
S: Yep. That’s because you clarified it to the point where the solutions are obvious. But just for fun, why don’t you tell me what some of them might be.
C: Uh, I don’t know. Um..
S: It’s okay, just throw them out there. Just go.
C: Well, I could try a different type of diet.
C: I could get a different personal trainer. And tell him about my knee this time. I don’t think I told the last one, I think I was just embarrassed. And I would feel more comfortable working out with a female trainer anyway.
S: Okay. What else?
C: Well, now that I know that I want to lose 50 lbs, I could set a goal for myself to lose a certain amount each week so that I’ve lost all the weight in a certain timeframe. Like six months or something.
S: That’s a good idea. What about your husband?
C: Oh, yeah. He loves his fried chicken. I make it for him at least 3 times a week.
S: Hmm.. I see. So how could you solve that problem?
C: Well… I guess I could make something else.
S: Yep. You could.
C: But every time I try to cook healthier food, he makes my life miserable!
S: Every time?
C: Ugh. Okay fine, not EVERY time..
S: So when specifically did he “make your life miserable” when you tried to cook healthy food?”
C: Well actually it was just this one time. I made a chicken salad for dinner and he started yelling at me about how HE’S the one who works all day, and how HE deserves to eat whatever he wants when he comes home.
S: I see. So it was just once?
C: Oh yeah. After that I didn’t try again.
S: So then how would we rephrase your statement?
C: Uh, I don’t know.
S: Maybe something like: “I’m afraid to cook healthy food for dinner because one time my husband yelled at me for making a chicken salad.” Doesn’t that sound easier to deal with than, “Every time I try to cook healthy food, he makes my life miserable!”?
C: Huh. Yeah I guess you’re right.
S: So how would you solve that problem?
C: Well, I guess I could just talk to him and tell him how important it is for me to lose weight.
S: And what if he still wants to eat his fried chicken?
C (thinking): Hmm. I guess I could just make him the fried chicken and make myself the salad.
S: That’s a good idea. So let’s state our problem again just to make sure we’re on the same page.
C (now visibly relaxed and smiling): This is weird. I don’t even really feel like it’s a problem anymore.
S: I know, but let’s state it anyway just so we know.
C: Okay. So I guess it would be, “I wish I could lose 50 lbs so I could be the same weight that I was in high school. I’ve tried Atkins and Weight Watchers but wasn’t able to lose weight with those. The personal trainer I hired ignored me when I told him about my knee pain. And I’ve been scared to cook healthier food for dinner because my husband yelled at me one time when I made a chicken salad instead of fried chicken.” Something like that.
S: Doesn’t that sound like an easier problem to solve than your original statement?
C: Actually yeah, I think I know exactly what I’m going to do when I go home.
Lazy is a luxury
The real problem is that most people never consider speaking in literal terms, not to themselves nor other people. They throw around metaphors without a care in the world, ignorant of all the potential harm they can cause.
But when you use Satir’s methods of drilling deep into the structure of a statement to find the actual truth, those words are never as scary as a vague generalization of an unsolvable problem. You may have heard before that clarifying your fear is the first step towards conquering it. Or that fear of doing something is worse than actually doing the thing?
Those two things are true because of the way we speak to ourselves.
- “I hate speaking in front of people. I’d literally rather die than do that.”
- “I’m the worst dancer in the world. I have no rhythm.”
- “I hate my life.”
- “She’s the best thing that ever happened to me. I don’t know where I’d be without her.”
When you look at all of these statements like an alien from another planet who takes everything at face value, you understand that taken literally, they don’t make any sense. And the weird thing is that our brains think like those aliens, whether we realize it or not.
Whatever your mouth says, your brain believes.
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