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Breaking The Spell - Page 4

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Logically, those sentences are completely equivalent; however, the first one presupposes that the task will be easy and the second one presupposes that it’ll be hard. Most people don’t consciously notice the difference, but they’ll tend to respond to the first instruction with ease and the second with difficulty. Here’s another language pairing:

“As a therapist, you can change what you do rapidly and quickly.”

“As a therapist thinking back on your experiences of doing therapy, you may notice how enjoyable it can be to remember times when you could change what you did rapidly and quickly.”

The first sentence, directed at conscious understanding, is pretty dry. It’s easy to find counterexamples to it or reject it completely; however, when the first sentence is included in the second sentence, nested within several layers of presupposition and with a different verb tense, it’ll usually be accepted. Listeners will agree with such a statement, often without consciously realizing it, whether or not they actually review their experiences to find examples.

Since every sentence contains presuppositions, and since language is processed automatically and unconsciously, we tend to accept presuppositions without challenge. If you can deliver enough resourceful presuppositions, you may never have to resolve the presenting problem, because clients will figure out how to do that on their own.

Recategorization or redescription is one of the commonest and most useful kinds of reframing, because the new description carries a host of different presuppositions and implications. I once saw psychiatrist Carl Whitaker, a founder of family therapy, demonstrate family therapy with a divorced couple whose teenage son lived with the mother. The mother was animated and sexy as she spoke at length about how wonderful the son was, how she confided in him, talking to him about her problems, and what a good relationship she had with him. Just after she mentioned yet another way in which she and he were getting along so well, Whitaker said to the mother, as he gestured with one hand first toward the mother and then to the son, “So your second marriage worked out much better than your first one,” gesturing toward the father.

The mother looked as if her brain had completely stopped working for several seconds. Clearly she’d never thought of her relationship with her son as a “marriage,” but from then on, it would be impossible for her not to. Whitaker often said, “Clients can agree with me or disagree with me, but they can’t ignore me.”

When the mother recovered from her confusion, she vehemently disagreed with the recategorization of her relationship with her son as a marriage. Whitaker calmly replied, “Yes, well, I’m not available, either,” a very interesting communication that at first glance seems to be irrelevant and completely “off the wall.” Let’s unpack it.

By saying, “Yes,” he’s agreeing with her that her relationship with her son isn’t a marriage. “I’m not available” in the context means “not available for marriage.” The word either implies that someone else is also unavailable, and in this context, it can only be the son. To summarize, Whitaker is agreeing with the mother that her relationship with her son isn’t a marriage, but only because the son isn’t “available.”

In the normal flow of conversation, few of these presuppositions will be conscious, but they’ll be processed unconsciously, and they’ll force the mother to review all aspects of her relationship with her son and consider whether they’re appropriate. This recategorization was particularly effective because it was presupposed, rather than stated, and because an essential part of the communication was delivered by Whitaker’s nonverbal hand gestures. If he’d simply said, “You’re acting as if you’re married to your son,” that would have been a conscious-mind “interpretation,” which would have annoyed the mother and been easy to dismiss.

Salvador Minuchin once began a session with a family in which a 10-year-old boy was sniffing gasoline by saying, “I understand you like to sniff gasoline. What do you think you are, an automobile?” The whole family relaxed a little at this joking recategorization of the boy as a machine, and the serious problem became a bit less serious and easier to resolve.

Less obvious is that Minuchin presupposed that the boy’s behavior was a result of his likes, rather than resulting from a pathological compulsion or some other mysterious deviant motive. Then Minuchin went on to say, “Which do you prefer: unleaded or regular?” amplifying his view of this behavior as resulting from the boy’s preferences, and implying that the boy could distinguish between different kinds of gasoline. Minuchin next took a sip of the herbal tea he’d been holding, smelled it, and said, “I wonder what kind of tea this is?” He turned to the boy, held out his cup, and said, “Since you have a good nose, tell me what kind of tea this is.”

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4 comments

  • Comment Link Sunday, 19 May 2013 14:33 posted by Susan Quinn, MFT

    Steve Andreas is the foremost NLP master of metaphor! I loved the brilliance of his examples here.