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Building Preferences

Like water that gushes forth when the floodgates are opened, the thing I find most exciting about the naming of a preference is the energy the name can unleash.

Sometimes, though, in my therapy work, my excitement is not shared by the people I work with – at least not initially. I’m moving downstream and they’re stuck behind the dam.

  • They may still be held in the problem’s grip and skeptical that the naming of a preference could make much difference in their lives.
  • They may have “settled in” or “come to terms” with the problem and decided to “make the most” of their situation.
  • They may dismiss preferences as mere fantasies, wishes, or unrealistic dreams.
  • They may feel daunted by the many factors that make the problem seem like an irresistible force.
  • Maybe they’ve already been working at this for so long that they’re sure they’ve tried everything.
  • And they may feel stuck because they don’t know where the path can go after a preference is named.

But the naming of a preference is only an initial step. There’s much more to add, to round out and give life and detail to the named preference so that it becomes “richly described” and more available to the person. So in my work with people I sometimes need to slow down my own thinking and excitement to make sure we’re moving together down a shared path – working together to build a preference or preferred story. Generally speaking, the questions below describe the territory we’ll explore as we travel down that path.

1. Naming your preference. This is the brief description, or title, of what you prefer or desire as an alternative to the problem that has been so dominant in your life. It’s a beginning point and likely to change as you think about and discuss the other steps in this process.

Here are some examples of preferences:

  • “I’d prefer to have a clearer sense of direction in my career.”
  • “I’d prefer to be calmer and be clearer about how I want to respond when my kids act up.”
  • “I’d prefer not to have my life be so influenced by doubts and worries.”

2. Describing what your preference looks like. Usually, when we name a preference, the name itself is only shorthand for a rich, detailed picture of what the preference looks like or how it would show up in our lives. If you were to say “I want to be more involved in my son’s life,” you’re probably not making a generic statement; you’re probably not talking about just a generic kind of involvement. Instead your statement probably carries with it images and ideas, activities and conversations, and places and situations that make it more than just a fantasy or dream. In this step we try to capture in conversation, words, or pictures (and perhaps even in music or colors or movement) a rich and detailed description of “how you know it when you see it.” So, we might ask:

  • When you picture yourself being involved in your son’s life, what are you actually doing with him?
  • Is there a “feeling” or “emotion” that captures that sense of involvement? How would you describe it? What do you picture yourself doing with your son that would evoke that feeling or emotion?
  • Does the involvement you’re picturing include conversations? Are there certain topics or ideas or experiences you might be talking about that would support the kind of involvement you want to have?
3. Understanding why the preference matters to you. The preference becomes more real as you understand the difference it makes in your life. So we ask:

  • How does this preference affect the way you think, feel, or act?
  • How does it affect the way you relate with others?
  • How does it affect the way you see your future?
  • How does the preference capture or reflect your hopes and dreams?
  • What does the preference make possible that isn’t possible, or as likely, when the problem is dominating your life?


4. Exploring how your experience has informed you about this preference. One of the reasons you can describe what a preference looks like is that you’ve usually had some (or a lot of) experience with it. In this step you deliberately focus on your own experiences to see how they’ve taught you about your preference. So, as a therapist, I might ask the person I’m working with:

  • Where have you seen this preference in action?
  • Where and when has it shown up in your life?
  • Where and when have you seen others enacting it? And what was it about what you observed that captured your interest and attention?
  • What have those experiences taught you about what the preference looks like? About its effects? About why it matters?
  • And what have those experiences taught you about how to live it out?

5. Identifying your own skills, abilities, qualities, and knowledge that support this preference. Your detailed descriptions, and your experiences help us understand the qualities, skills, and knowledge that are required by the preference. Sometimes these are obvious in the vivid pictures you paint of the preference or in the experiences you recall. At other times you can see those qualities and skills by speculating or imagining. Or you might playfully consider how you would advise someone else who wanted to live out this preference. Or you might imagine directing someone in a play or movie role, if they youre trying to act out this preference. By naming the qualities and abilities required by the preference, you’re able to consider how these are already part of your repertoire, or how you can build on the things you’re already good at, and more fully develop these skills that support your preferences.

From a theoretical perspective these questions aid in the “thickening” of the preference into a richly described story or identity. What began as almost a whim or an improbable wish, now takes on body and depth. It becomes three-dimensional and alive. It changes, so to speak, from an outline to a story; from a bright idea to an action plan. It starts to move from the vague and ephemeral to the detailed and full-bodied, and thereby becomes much more accessible to us in your lives.

(In my next entry I work through this same set of questions with an example focusing on a grumpy dad)