As promised in my last entry on Building Preferences, here’s an example of building a preference. The preference is for Dave, who has been struggling for several months with what he’s come to call his “grumpiness” at home. We’ll walk with Dave through the process of building a preference. Although Dave is fictitious, the dialogue that follows is based on many therapy conversations.
- “I’d prefer to be less grumpy.”
We’re on our way to developing some useful alternatives for Dave, but first it will be helpful to get a better understanding of at least two things:
A. Dave has identified what he does NOT prefer (i.e. being grumpy), but I wonder what he DOES prefer, instead of grumpiness; or, since he prefers to be LESS grumpy, what would he say he wants MORE of?
B. Where does the preference matter most? Where is it most an issue? Is Dave grumpy “all the time,” or mostly around certain issues, or particular times of day, or around certain activities, or perhaps with some of his family members rather than others?
In response to the inquiry about what Dave DOES prefer, he’s not entirely clear, but he offers his best understanding:
- “I’d prefer to be happy, to be more pleasant around my family; to be upbeat and have more fun around them.”
This is helpful to our process of building a preference as it gives us a sense of direction: away from grumpy, toward happy, pleasant, upbeat and fun.
In response to the second inquiry, Dave says that grumpiness is mostly an issue in the evening, from the time he gets home from work until the kids’ bedtime, some two to three hours later. He’s not always grumpy during these times, and he can recall many experiences of lightheartedness and warm connections with his wife and kids in the evenings. But grumpiness has made more and more of an appearance, so to speak, and he doesn’t like its effects on himself, his wife, or his kids. In the course of this conversation Dave clarifies that grumpiness is far more of an issue during the week than on the weekend. In light of this, we update his preference as follows:
- “I’d prefer to be happy, to be more pleasant around my family; to be upbeat and have more fun around them – especially in the evening, on weekdays.”
2. Describing what your preference looks like. Dave has identified important concepts or ideas to express his desires – being happier, more pleasant, upbeat, and fun around his family. And Dave may experience real benefits just by having clarified something that’s been bothering him, and clarifying what he’d prefer instead. But concepts like happiness and being upbeat or fun can easily remain abstract or vague, and therefore, not as useful, unless we take the time to explore what they actually look like when they show up in Dave’s life. So, we explore these questions:
- When you picture yourself being happy, pleasant, upbeat, or fun, what are you actually doing with your family?
- What “feelings” or “emotions” capture your sense of being happier, more pleasant, upbeat, or fun? What’s happening with you, your kids, and your wife that would evoke those feelings or emotions?
At first, questions about what Dave would be doing with his family are difficult for him to answer. All he can really identify is that whatever he’d be doing, he’d have a warm sense of contentment.
I ask him to imagine himself feeling such contentment and to describe what he’s experiencing. He first describes what he sees: his daughter and son being energetic, but not rude or out of control, they’re not anxious or worked up. As he thinks about himself in this scenario, he imagines a variety of situations. He could be working on his own project from work, or sitting beside his kids helping with their homework. He could be cleaning up after dinner. He might be talking with his wife about the upcoming week, or just catching each other up on the day’s events. Or he might be by himself, reading or watching TV, but with a prevailing sense of calm or peace, even with the hum of activity going on around him.
I start to ask Dave about why this matters to him, but before I can move in this direction, Dave says that he’s gaining a new insight about what his preference looks like. He states it this way:
- “No matter if we’re having fun as a family or working on really challenging projects, or homework, or facing our finances; and no matter whether we’re all together or off in our separate places in the house, there’s a positive energy, and a sense of calm, and a sense of focus. Bottom line, tension and frustration with one another are not getting in the way of what we’re doing. It’s like this fog, this thick, gray fog that so often hangs in our house, is gone. The air is clear. And if my son is struggling with his homework and I need to help, that’s all it is: my son is struggling with his homework and I need to help. I’m not thinking, ‘why does he always put it off until the last minute?’ And I’m not thinking, ‘if I have to help him now, when am I going to get back to my work? I can’t afford to stay up late.’ I’m not worked up about helping him and he’s not worked up about needing help. I’m just helping my son. And he’s just struggling with homework.”
3. Understanding why the preference matters to you. I ask Dave why it matters to him that the fog lifts and that homework is just homework. He says it matters to him because he believes tension is corrosive. The fog of tension gets in the way of working together clearly and cleanly, and creates a sense of unrest and uneasiness for everyone. He says that he can actually feel his body relax and breathe easier when he’s able to help his son with his homework without getting worked up about how late it is. He’s certain that it must be better for his health when the fog lifts and his family’s relationships with one another are calmer. And he thinks they all benefit by not carrying around with them the tensions of a frustrated, fog-shrouded evening together.
I ask him if there are other ways he thinks the carrying out of this preference might matter to his kids’ lives. Dave talks about his hope that he and his wife pass along a different legacy of family than either of them had growing up. At this point Dave’s updated preference might be described more creatively as:
- “I’d prefer that the fog has lifted and the air is clear: that I’m helping to create a focused, connected, playful, and tension-free evening with my family.”
4. Exploring how your experience has informed you about this preference. I hold an assumption about Dave, as I do when I work with people in therapy, that he is able to describe what his preference looks like because he’s experienced it. He’s either experienced it in his own life, or he’s witnessed others enacting this preference, or perhaps he’s witnessed it only in his imagination. Our conversation turns to his experiences to see what they’ve taught Dave about his preference.
- Where have you seen or experienced the fog lifting and the air being clear? Where and when has it shown up in your life?
- Have you seen others interacting without the fog? What was it about what you observed that captured your interest and attention?
- Have you imagined what it would be like to be with your family without the fog? Have you read of such an experience, or seen it in a movie?
- What have these experiences taught you about what the preference looks like? What have they taught you about the effects of clear air, of relating without the fog? And what have you learned about why this matters?
- What have those experiences taught you about how to do it?
Dave was already in this territory when he talked about helping his son with his homework. He described an experience from just the past week in which he was particularly stressed from a confluence of events – bills that required online payment that evening, his wife’s making a late run to the store, his sense that he was catching a cold, and his daughter’s pouting at dinnertime. When bedtime approached and his son still had a history assignment to complete, Dave could feel that grumpiness was turning into something worse: intolerance and frustration toward his son. The fog was descending.
Because he had been focusing on this pattern where grumpiness quickly becomes something colder, more distant, and mean-spirited, Dave was able, at least, to catch himself from saying something critical to his son (from past experience Dave had concluded that such in-the-moment criticism tended to escalate the situation in a negative way and compound everyone’s frustration).
When his son announced that he needed help with his homework, a panic-wave rippled through Dave's body. But he said, “give me a moment. Get out your assignment and I’ll be there in a couple minutes.” He stepped outside and looked to the night sky. He began to calm and said to himself, “my son needs my help now. We can talk tomorrow about his study habits.” After a few moments, and a few deep breaths, Dave walked back in and sat with his son, and let his son’s homework be homework.
In describing the effects of his actions that evening, Dave said he was surprised by how simple things became once he paused. Instead of being shrouded in the fog of the demands on his time and his frustration with his son, it was simply Dave and his son taking one question at a time: thirty minutes of a comfortable, focused connection.
5. Identifying your own skills that support this preference. From this brief description of just one event we gain an understanding of several skills Dave was able to utilize to work toward his preference. (“Skills” is used here broadly, to include thinking skills, the ability to manage one’s emotions, actions or behaviors, skills involved in communicating, and one’s knowledge that can be brought to bear on a situation.) As Dave I reviewed his experience of that evening, these were the skills that stood out to him:
- The skill of recognizing a bad pattern – Dave was able to recognize, when it was actually happening, his well-worn emotional pattern of moving from grumpiness to intolerance, criticism, and frustrated distance. This recognition, though it may seem simple, requires a complex set of skills, such as noticing subtle changes in emotion, gestures, words, tones of voice, ways of thinking, and even changes in breathing that signal the pattern.
- The skill of making a choice to interrupt the pattern – When he recognized the bad pattern, It wasn’t clear to Dave exactly what he should do differently, but he knew he did not want to do the critical-intolerant thing he often does. So he took a break to interrupt the pattern and allow for another possibility.
- The skill of calming himself down – Dave enacted several skills to calm his agitation. He physically moved, put his body in motion; he removed himself from the stressful situation; he focused on maintaining a steady, calm breathing pattern; and he gave himself a bigger perspective by taking in the night sky.
- The skill of focusing on what matters – Of all the things clamoring for Dave’s attention, he was able to prioritize his son’s immediate need for help. He also prioritized an attitude (of care and interest) and an “emotional stance” (being calm and positive) that would be beneficial, both to his son and to himself.
- The skill of being guided by a preferred story or picture – Dave showed the ability to identify a picture of how he wanted to be with his son (or a “preferred story” of how to do homework together), and then to allow that picture to guide his comments, his questions, his thinking, and his overall spirit, attitude, and emotions during his 30 minutes with his son.
By naming the skills required by his preference, Dave could see that some of these skills were already part of his repertoire, and he could identify others that he wanted to develop more fully.
A Richly Described Preferred Story
In my earlier entry I talked about how the steps outlined here aid us in the “thickening” of the preference into a richly described story or identity. What began for Dave as almost a whim or an improbable wish – that he could be less grumpy – has now taken on body, detail, and depth. It has become three-dimensional and alive. At this end of the discussion Dave has helped prepare himself for future situations when he starts to experience grumpiness taking on a life of its own. He’s likely to be much quicker in recognizing the patterns before they get a real grip on him. He’ll have a much clearer picture of his preferences for his own behavior, thought patterns, and ways of communicating with those around him. And he’ll have a detailed understanding of himself, his identity, and the resources he already has at his disposal that can be put to use to bring about the preferred ways of being and outcomes that matter most to him. From a narrative therapy perspective, we can summarize this by saying that Dave has richly described his preferred story: which makes it much more accessible on those potentially fog-shrouded evenings with his family. Here’s Dave’s preference, or preferred story, at this end of our conversation – still a work-in-progress:
- “I’d prefer to use my skills for being calm and connected, to keep the fog at bay and help to create a focused, playful, and tension-free evening with my family.”