First Questions First

When people come for counselling, they need to ask and answer a few questions.

The first question is: “What do you want to change stated reasonably and measurably?” That’s a laborious question! It is about what you want and what you can practically do. It is about what is reasonable and measurable. Answering this question is the hub of change.

I think this is a respectful question. I do not ask them what their parents want them to change your what they think God wants them to do. I asked them what they want. It is an important differentiating question. “What do you actually want?”

Most people come to counselling hoping to make a change. Perhaps the person wants a better relationship with an adult child. Or someone else is hoping to reduce anxiety in social situations. And perhaps, in a more nebulous way, someone would like to connect to an inner spiritual self. All of this involves some sort of change — a change of behaviour, a change of perspective, change of tone.

A few days ago, I was meeting online with a couple who wrote in their Intake Form that they wanted to build their emotional intimacy. For the first 10 minutes or so they blamed each other for their shared inadequacies, which were many. I did not see a desire or intent to change personally but to coerce the other. I asked them, “What would they like to change reasonably and measurably?” Confused, they stopped blaming, looked at each other and began to think. Perhaps the pragmatism of the question dumbfounded them.

The second question follows logically: “What are you willing to do to make this change happen?” This question is as pragmatic as the first. Change happens in time increments. Everyone has 168 hours in the week and some of those hours should be directed towards intended change. For couples, we might recommend a “10/10” and you can read about that here. Developing intimacy (at least at the beginning) is going to take 20 minutes a day or 140 minutes for a week. That is probably more intimacy than any most couples experience in a year. (By the way, the couple described above has done the 10/10 for a couple of weeks now. They are initiating the change that they claimed to want.)

The third question is a bit of a surprise: “How might you sabotage yourself?” This is about the predictable ways in which we spoil our future. We all have “adaptations” to the hard work of change. A client friend wants to learn to improve his performance at work. He knows he has the capacity for leadership, and he dreams of success. The problem is, he can never get around to answer question 2, “What are you willing to do?” Avoidance, forgetfulness, carelessness, un-planfulness (not really a word but you get the point), busyness are some of his adaptations. You might call them “excuses” but I think of them as “sabotages.”

These are what I think of as first-order questions of therapy and change. Without wresting and responding to these issues, no therapy is done. So what do you want to change? Or, “What do you want to work on today?

If you want to read a bit more on these questions, here is an outline from our Tools section. It is called “Contract for Change.”

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