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Naming Preferences

It’s a basic tenet of narrative therapy that problems are tricky buggers. They take over our lives, drain our energy, and erase our imaginations. They can convince us that they are the truth, the whole truth, and that they are more real than any of the paltry solutions we might come up with. So they’re not only tricky, they’re greedy too. And the people I work with in therapy usually show up to my office with some serious suffering from these problems. They’ve often had the life, energy, and optimism sucked out of them by problems.

But as daunting as these problems often feel for me and the people I work with, my spirits are usually buoyed by my confidence in people’s ability to identify and work toward their preferences, despite the efforts of problems to keep them down. So even in the midst of people’s considerable pain and suffering, I remain curious about what they prefer for their lives and why it matters to them.

In light of this, much of my focus as a therapist is on helping the people I work with identify and build on their preferences. By preference I mean the choice of one quality over another, or one way of being, acting, thinking, or feeling over another, as in: “I’d prefer to show more interest in my children’s lives”; “I’d prefer to act grown-up around my peers”; “we’d prefer to replace bickering with caring discussions and genuine problem-solving in our marriage”; or, “I’d prefer to have more spiritual focus in my life.”

To identify and name a preference is a powerful step toward living the kind of life we want to lead. It’s powerful in at least four ways (and probably many more):

1. Preferences highlight alternatives. The naming of a preference helps us see that there are alternatives to an entrenched problem (and problems often take up so much space in our lives that they block out everything else).

For example, the preference stated above, “to show more interest in my children’s lives,” may have previously been hidden or crowded out by this father’s frustration with his children (that is, all he could see was frustration), his guilt over his own distance from them, or his helpless feeling of re-enacting the same tension-filled relationship he had with his own father. Such frustration, guilt, or déjà-vu experiences can be so overwhelming, so draining of energy and resources that they take away even the hope of a better way. Perhaps even worse, such problem-derived feelings can paint such a compelling picture of the situation that we become convinced that it’s the only picture in town; the only option or way of seeing. But even if it doesn’t seem very likely at the beginning, the naming of a preference puts an alternative out there for consideration and potential development. The problem is not the only game in town.

2. The naming of preferences brings them more into reality. Inspired by an image from the writings of Michael White, I like to think of problems and preferences as books on a bookshelf. The problem-books, with their fat, boldly lettered spines, have dominated and nearly filled the entire bookshelf, convincing us of their truth and comprehensiveness, insinuating that they’re the only story around. But naming a preference is like adding a slim little volume to the end of the row of books. It’s so slim that you can’t read its title without pulling if off the shelf, but its mere presence hints, whispers or even beckons to us that there are more stories to tell; more truths and realities to be explored; more alternatives to be developed.

The naming of the preference often helps convey an emotion or passion that has been only gently nudging us; perhaps a little too lightly to be treated as real. The naming of the preference brings it into the light of day; exposes it; brings it more into existence. It’s like putting pencil to paper and actually sketching a picture that’s been in your head for a while – the sketch may not be the final picture, but it gets you started down the path of color and shape and size and contrast that ultimately brings the picture to life.

3. Preferences help us take a position. By naming a preference, and stating that, in fact, it is what we prefer, we’re taking a position on what matters to us. We’re declaring what is important. If nothing else, we’re letting ourselves know that we value the preference more than the problem, and we desire the effects of the preference more than the effects of the problem. Stating such preferences has the powerful potential to re-shape and re-frame the way we see ourselves and our worlds.

If I take the position that I’d prefer to have civil, respectful, caring conversations with my wife, rather than bickering, I’m likely to pay more attention the next time to the way I talk with her. And although such attention-paying may not yield, immediately, the types of conversations that I prefer, it does help me reflect on the contexts and factors that either help or hinder my ability to be respectful and caring. Such attention-paying helps me think about why it even matters to me that I be civil, respectful and caring; for example, I can contrast the kind of relationship that is possible with caring and respectful conversations with the kind of relationship that is promoted by bickering. And I can consider what skills, abilities, knowledge, and experience I can bring to bear on my desire to be caring in my talks with my wife. Reflecting on my preferences can also help me take more notice of other people who display the kinds of qualities I’ve stated as my preference: For example, I can witness a couple engaging in caring conversations, with openness, respect, and curiosity toward one another, and I can learn from how they do it.

4. Preferences can invite playfulness. Part of the oppressiveness of problems is they invite us to take them and our lives very seriously. And while life deserves some serious considerations, such seriousness is not always the best way to make the changes we want. When we name a preference and then let ourselves play around with both the preference and its name, energy happens, curiosity is unleashed, and creativity erupts.

We may start with one name for our preference, but find that subsequent names are more nuanced or more specific. They can capture more of the energy and passion we feel; they reflect our deep desires and longings. In fact, it’s a good exercise to pay attention to our energy and emotions as we “try on” different names for our preferences. Does the name describe or capture something that gives you energy or enthusiasm? If not, is there a change you can make to the name that brings with it more energy or passion? For example, instead of preferring “to show more interest in my children’s lives,” more energizing names may be “to learn more about my son’s interest in chess,” or “to spend more time bike-riding with my daughter,” or “to try to have conversations in which I’m genuinely curious about how my son sees the world.” The playful naming of our preferences can invite us to reflect on the names we’ve chosen and say, “well actually, it’s more of this and less of that,” or “it’s this, especially in these situations … and in these other situations, it’s this other thing, which I really love!”