In order to solve a problem, you have to know what it is!
By Dr Jim Byrne, Doctor of Counselling, 24th February 2022
I have spent years studying wisdom, learning, communication, critical thinking, and many related subjects: (including counselling psychology and psychotherapy; neuroscience; attachment theory; affect regulation theory; personality adaptations, etc.).
Ignorance may be bliss if you just want to drift through life. But I do not want to drift through life, and I want to optimize my chances of being really helpful to my counselling and therapy clients.
There is a fable about a wise sage who wanders into a Middle Eastern town, and sees a man scrabbling in the dusty street, outside a broken-down shop. The sage asks the man what he’s looking for, and the man says he dropped a valuable diamond and can’t find it. The sage offers to help him find it, and asks where exactly was the man standing when he dropped it. The man takes the sage into the dark interior of his shop, and says, “Over in that dark corner”. The sage scratches his head and asks, “So why are you looking for it in the street?” And the man replies, “Because it is easier to see out there!”
Every system of counselling, coaching and psychotherapy has a pencil torch which its adherents shine on the subject of “human disturbance”, or “problems solving”, or “emotional healing”, or whatever. That torch illuminates the area it was intended to illuminate. And when the client comes to the consulting room, every counsellor shines their little torch (or set of little torches) where their teacher (or subsequent authors) taught them to shine it.
But what if the client’s problem is in the darkest corner of the shop?
Here is an important question that comes up a lot in counselling and therapy:
“Why is your life not working well; not working optimally; not giving you the satisfaction you desire?”
If I, as your counsellor, asked you that question, you (as my client) would make up a plausible answer, but it would almost certainly be wrong! (To review the scientific proof of this statement, please see the two books and one scientific article in Footnote 1 below).
 Gladwell, M. (2006), BLINK: The power of thinking without thinking. London: Penguin Books.
Gray, J. (2003), Straw Dogs: Thoughts on humans and other animals. London: Granta Books.
Maier, N.R.F. (1931), ‘Reasoning in Humans: II – The solution of a problem and its appearance in consciousness’. Journal of Comparative Psychology, 12: 181-194.
The conclusion of those three sources is this: Humans are largely non-conscious creatures of habit, who make up stories to account for their actions, without realizing that the story is not accurate!
My way of understanding this problem is this: I believe all humans (including me!) function largely non-consciously, as creatures of habit! And we view the world – non-consciously – through frames of reference derived (interpretively and automatically) from our past (social) experiences. And these narratives are emotive or feeling stories, which provide meaning and structure to the life of the social-individual.
It has long been known in psychology and philosophy that humans have to interpret their experiences. That our interpretations are instantaneous, and that we do not see the things and events to which we respond, but rather do we see our interpretations, heavily coloured by our past experiences.
♣ “Hi Jim. You have already exceeded all my expectations in only two sessions of telephone counselling. And I am extremely grateful for these most generous follow-up notes and handouts, which contain important insights and guidance. You have helped me a lot, and I have much to contemplate and integrate before our next session.”
B.J., Blackburn, Lancs. (Two sessions of telephone counselling for early childhood trauma and current relationship problems).
Richard Bandler and John Grinder, the creators of Neurolinguistic Programming (NLP) go further and claim that we humans go through the following stages in our interpretations:
Firstly, we have an experience, but then we delete some elements of our perception of that experience. (Presumably, we keep the elements which seem familiar from past experience).
Secondly, we then distort what we retain. (Presumably to fit with our feelings about this ‘thing/event’).
Thirdly, and finally, we then generalize from that distorted perception. (Presumably in order to have a set-piece way of responding to future appearances of that ‘perception’).
So, if Bandler and Grinder are right, then this is a big problem.
 Bandler and Grinder (1975), The Structure of Magic, Volume 1. Palo Alto, CF: Science and Behaviour Books, In. Chapter 4: Pages 57-106.
If I ask you the question we began with above, you will make up a story which seems to answer my question. But it will be based on your tendency to delete, distort and generalize.
But worse than that, I will then delete something from your story, distort what is left (to fit my models of human behaviour), and generalize from the resulting ‘story’, in order to project what I expect from you from this point onwards!
What a mess!
♣ “Good Morning Jim, I hope you and your wife are keeping well in these challenging times. I wanted to drop you a line to give you some great news. Frank and I have had a real break-through in our relationship. He recently began to demonstrate his love for me in ways that had not happened for years. I was blown away! So here is my big thank you, and I will always be grateful to you for your great guidance and therapy.
K.D., Calderdale, West Yorkshire. (Four sessions of couples therapy).
HOWEVER! Once I became aware of this serious problem of human communication, I began to develop a viable remedy, and I have succeeded in that mission.
I now make sure that every client who comes to see me has completed a number of relevant questionnaires about their life history, lifestyle, current stressors, and so on.
But don’t they simply introduce deletions, distortions and generalizations into those questionnaires?
I suppose they would if they could; but most psychological and scientific questionnaires, are designed to make it virtually impossible (and certainly very difficult!) for the person responding to them to figure out how to create a distortion that they would like. So they have to simply answer the questions and hope for the best!
The questionnaires that I use with my client throw up all kinds of useful information that I might never have gained – in a month of Sundays – using non-formal, conversational assessment of the client’s problems within counselling sessions.
And now I have discovered that those formal assessments (combined with my non-formal conversational assessments; and my follow up reports; and my follow up psycho-educational documents; are, in almost 50% of cases, all that the client needs in order to solve their problem. (For more, please see this page: The power of exploratory and diagnostic assessments to heal.)