by Steve Andreas
In everyday conversation, people exchange messages at different logical levels, and often this is entirely appropriate. I say that I enjoyed a good meal, and my wife responds with “I’m glad,” including my experience in a more general category of things that she is glad about. She asks me, “How was the seminar?” asking for an overall evaluation, and I respond at a more specific level by telling her about one of the events that I enjoyed — a scope rather than a categorization.
At other times, a response at a different logical level is not so useful. For instance, if someone asks me how to get to a particular restaurant, and I respond by raving about the wonderful food at that restaurant, that doesn’t tell them what they need to know. If I ask someone what they thought of a movie, and they respond, “I liked it,” that is not an answer to my question.
Since people’s problems exist at different logical levels, it is important to be able to track levels, and respond at the appropriate level in order to offer something that they can make use of. If someone feels terrible because they don’t know how to drive a car, it is usually much more useful to teach them that skill than it is to make them feel better about not being able to. On the other hand, if someone is handicapped and physically unable to drive a car, then it’s appropriate to change how they think about this limitation.
Often a great deal of therapeutic effort is devoted to changing the feelings that someone has in response to a problem. It is usually much more useful to change the situation or their perception of the situation so that it is no longer a problem for them — and then their feelings about it automatically become more positive. Now let’s examine another common situation that is a little more complex.
Disbelief in the possibility of change
In a change-work session, often a client will say something like, “I don’t think it will work,” a statement about the process, which is an apparent objection to going forward with the process. “Disbelief” is a more general category, a higher logical level, than the process itself, since disbelief includes all the other things that the client doesn’t believe in.
Many therapists mistakenly think that they have to change this disbelief about a process before they can proceed with the process itself. The therapist’s belief is about the client’s belief, so it is at an even more general level than the client’s belief about the process. At this point they have both become completely distracted from the process that can be used to solve the problem! This is an example of how both client and therapist can lose track of the logical levels in communication, and waste a lot of time on irrelevant issues.
Belief in the process would only be necessary if you were doing faith healing, in which the healer or guru has so little confidence in their own methods and skills that they think that they need the client’s belief in order to bring about change. At this point the real issue is not the client’s doubt that a process will work, but the therapist’s doubt that their process will work even though the client doesn’t believe in it. This situation betrays a common and fundamental confusion between faith healing, which relies on belief, and science, the study of what works no matter what someone believes, two entirely different categories.
When you know that a process will work, it is not important whether or not anyone believes that it will work, any more than it is necessary to believe in a cell phone in order to use it. It is only important that the client is willing to cooperate in doing the process, so that you and s/he can find out if it works or not.
A very striking example of this appears in my 21-year-old video of the fast phobia cure, which is also available in transcript form in our book, Heart of the Mind. After I conclude the seven-minute session and say, “That’s all there is to it,” the woman expresses her disbelief by laughing hysterically for 8 seconds. Then she says emphatically, “I’m glad I didn’t pay for this!” and continues to laugh hysterically for another 20 seconds. (If that doesn’t sound very long to you, pause, look at your watch, and try laughing hard out loud for 28 seconds.)
Even though her conscious mind was completely unbelieving and skeptical, she was very cooperative, and the process worked (and I now have 19 years of follow-up). When you have confidence in your methods and skills, cooperation is all you need. With this understanding, your response to a doubting client will be focused only on eliciting their cooperation, not their belief. You can simply bypass their disbelief, and redirect attention to what they want, a more specific category, in order to gain cooperation in doing the process.
For instance, you can say, “You think some of the ideas and methods that I use sound really weird and crazy, and you don’t think they could be of any use to you. However, I don’t care whether you think it will work or not, because I’m not a faith healer, and I know that it will work. The theories of physics and electricity that were used to make your cell phone are also pretty crazy, but they work, and when you use your cell phone to call someone, it is completely irrelevant whether or not you believe that it will work.” This makes a clear distinction between the categories of faith healing and science, and between a theory and the results of using a theory.
“I also know you are really hurting in this situation and you don’t want to have those horrible consequences and bad feelings that you have been having. You’d really like to have much more resourceful ways of responding.”
Besides matching their experience, this refocuses their attention on the problem, which is either a scope, or a more specific category, at a lower logical level. This also elicits “away from” motivation, and then directs their attention to their positive outcome, also giving them something to move toward.
“Now the really important question is this: ÔIf my crazy methods did work, and you got the outcome we have been discussing, would you have any objection to actually being that way?’ I want you to vividly imagine that it is now tomorrow, and you have already achieved the outcome you want. I want you to take some time to explore very thoroughly how well this new way of being and responding works for you, now, and in the days and weeks to come. What is it like to have these new responses? How do your family, friends, boss, subordinates, and strangers respond to you, in all the different major contexts in which you live — home, work, play, etc.? Because we might find that we need to adjust your new response to be sure it works well in all aspects of your life, before we go through a process that will create this new ability in you.”
This “ecology check” (which is really a congruence check) asks the client to expand their scope and create a series of sensory-based scenarios in which they enact their desired responses, and notice how satisfied they are with the results. The results of carrying out these scenarios will be used as feedback to adjust the outcome until it is satisfactory. Often this rehearsal is all that is needed to elicit and contextualize the new responses, and they may never have to go through the process that they originally thought was “crazy.”
However, let’s assume that you do need to do another process, and a client has objections to cooperating. You simply have to find a category that is acceptable to them, and show how the “crazy” process fits into this category. For instance, one colleague was working with a religious man who objected to visualization because he thought it was “new age” and contrary to his religion. The colleague first asked the client about a number of examples of planning for the future, in which the client agreed that visualization was useful. Then he recategorized the visual swish pattern as being a different kind of auditory or written prayer, a special form of prayer in the visual modality.
Of course, the foregoing assumes that there is a process that will work dependably for the client’s problem or outcome, and that you know what it is. Whenever an intervention doesn’t work, I assume that either:
1. I made a mistake in eliciting the structure of the problem, so the process I chose was inappropriate, or
2. The client did not do the process appropriately — usually because my instructions were clumsy or ambiguous, and/or the client made a creative interpretation of them, or
3. The problem is a special case with a somewhat different or more complex structure than usual — something that I can determine and use to adjust the process accordingly.
When an intervention works for a while, and then stops working, I assume that the intervention was basically appropriate, but that it interfered with some other outcome. This other outcome is often called “secondary gain” in psychology, but it really should be called “primary gain,” since the client thinks it is more important than the initial desired outcome. In this case the intervention needs to be adjusted or changed so that it doesn’t interfere with the “secondary gain.”
For instance, one of our students cured a woman’s phobia of spiders, and she was fine for a couple of weeks, but then her phobia returned. Upon investigation, the phobia had a positive function — it was a dependable way to get her husband’s attention when other ways failed. Another way of describing this is that her phobic response was an example of the category, “ways to dependably get husband’s attention,” a category that had no other members. When she learned and tested alternate dependable ways to get her husband’s attention, the phobia resolution process lasted.
Logical levels are simply ways to track how someone uses categorical inclusion to organize their experience: which experiences are included in which categories, and which categories are included in other categories. When you understand the logical structure of someone’s thinking, you can use this to determine when it’s inappropriate, and change the structure. When someone’s thinking leads them into blind alleys, endless circling, or other confusion, you can help them find their way out of the maze.
This brief excerpt is from the book, Six Blind Elephants: understanding ourselves and others volume I Fundamental Principles of Scope and Category.© 2006 Real People Press
Recategorization at a Higher Logical Level
by Steve Andreas
Many different patterns of intervention are included in the very general, and sometimes misleading, term “reframing.” Some of these patterns do change the frame around an event in much the same way as a picture frame, and these have often been called “changing frame size,” or “different frame.” However, other reframing patterns recategorize an event, which is very different from changing the frame. This can be done at the same logical level, or at a lower or higher one. Here are a few widely useful ways of recategorization at a higher and more general logical level.
“As if” “This is just pretend; it’s not real,” is one of the most useful categories for allowing people to explore different ways of being and responding. Pretending “as if” a situation were the case removes it from the constraints of “reality,” or the past, or the limitations of what someone believes is possible or proper, an imaginary world in which there is no penalty for making a mistake. Someone can imagine to their heart’s content, create a variety of scenarios, and then examine them to find out how well they might actually work to get them what they want. After creating a detailed desired outcome, they can return to the real world to find out if they could actually make it happen.
A variation on the “as if” frame is to ask someone to imagine doing something that they know they would never do. Since they know they would never do it, they are completely protected from whatever unpleasant consequences they think would happen if they actually did do it, so they can imagine freely. However, by imagining freely, they are also rehearsing what it would be like to actually do it. As they rehearse it, they can also notice whether or not it fits their goals and values, and they may discover that it would be safe, and perhaps even useful or enjoyable.
When one woman who was very inhibited about sex was given the task of imagining doing something that she would never actually consider doing with her husband (and also not to even tell the therapist, to avoid the embarrassment of even thinking about it in the presence of someone else) she imagined greeting him at the front door with nothing on but Saran wrap and a big red bow. As she imagined doing this, it appeared quite enjoyable and harmless, so she decided to do it — and did it.
The miracle question used by Solution-focused therapy is another way of creating an “as if” recategorization. “Imagine that a miracle happened tonight, and you woke up in the morning and your problem was solved to your complete satisfaction. What is different as you go through your day? What do you do different? How do you feel different, how is your thinking different, and what are the results of all that?”
Milton Erickson used “reorientation in time” to accomplish the same goal. After hypnotizing a client, he would first disorient them in time, by talking about how, “Yesterday, yesterday was today, and today was tomorrow, while the day before that was yesterday, and today was the day after tomorrow. If you think about the next year today, it’s not real, but a year from now, today would be in the distant past, only a memory of what was once real,” etc. (This kind of language is much harder to follow when heard auditorily, than it is when it is written down and you can go back over it, and most people respond by going deeper into trance.) Then he would reorient them to a time several months or a year in the future, and ask them not only about how much they are enjoying the changes in their life, but also about what they had done in the past in order to achieve those changes.
“Some time ago, in the fall of 2005 I think it was, you came to me for help with a particular problem that had been troubling you for some time. Now that it is the spring of 2006, and you have put those difficulties permanently behind you, I’d like you to review just what it was that you did differently to bring about those changes that you are so satisfied with now. I have a terrible memory, and I can’t recall just what it was that we did that was so effective in helping make those changes.” Often the client would report in great detail what it was that they did differently, and Erickson would then awaken them with amnesia for the trance, and use the information he had gathered to tell them exactly what to do in order to accomplish the changes that they wanted.
“Before we begin”or “This is not therapy” is another very useful way to categorize a therapeutic interaction, particularly with people who are self-conscious, doubting, fearful, or might have some other unuseful response to knowing that they are engaging in “therapy” or “work.” “Before we begin this process (or session, etc.), we need to make a few arrangements (or check out a few things, consider a few questions, etc.).” Then you proceed to do whatever it is that you want to accomplish. When you are done, you can move directly into another topic, tell them that you are finished, or say that you changed your mind, and have decided that they don’t need the process that you had planned to use.
You can use “Before we begin” in your office, or your familiar context for change work, or you can simply meet in a very different context that is not usually thought of as a place for personal change. If you meet in a hall, parking lot, restaurant, or some other location, the non-therapeutic context will implicitly categorize what you are doing as “not therapy” in a way that is even more convincing and natural.
This approach can also be used in any other context in which someone has unhelpful behaviors or responses that are likely to emerge in a particular context. For instance, someone who tends to “take over” a business meeting when it is held in a boardroom, may be much more relaxed, agreeable and open to change at a picnic, playing golf, or in some other context that is “not business.”
CrazyMany therapists make the mistake of thinking that clients need to believe or agree with what they say. A ridiculous or outrageous statement is usually remembered far better than an ordinary or serious one, and a client is much more likely to keep thinking of it, even when they consciously reject the idea altogether.
Family therapist Carl Whitaker often used to begin the first session with a brief statement that, “I’m just a crazy old guy who says whatever comes into my mind.” By categorizing all his behavior as crazy, his clients never felt pressured to agree with his comments, (eliminating “resistance”) and Whitaker never had to defend or justify what he said. That made it much easier for clients to simply respond.
Whitaker would say something like “Sometimes when the kids act up, I’ll bet you’d like to just stick them in the freezer for a week.” When a family member would object, he would remind them that he had warned them that he would say crazy things, and that they shouldn’t take it personally, unless they thought it fit for them. When a client would say something like, “You’re being completely unreasonable!” Whitaker would calmly reply, “You know, my wife said almost the same thing to me yesterday.” Whitaker was fond of saying about his clients, “They can agree with me, or they can disagree with me, but they can’t ignore me.”
It is really hard to convince therapists how useful a recategorization can be, even when clients vigorously disagree with it. A therapist in training “explained that she and her husband argued almost daily about a certain cupboard door. She had the habit of leaving the door open, and the open door irritated him. When he started complaining, she countered, and the exchange soon escalated into a full-blown row [argument].”
In the woman’s view, the whole problem was caused by her husband’s rigidity and orderliness — categorizations that were not useful in promoting their happiness, whether or not they were true. The trainer of the group, Finnish therapist Tapani Ahola:
. . . suggested that she tell her husband that she had discussed her habit of leaving the cupboard door open with her training group, which includes many experienced psychologists. She should say that, according to the group, her leaving the cupboard door open was actually a subconscious, or perhaps a “preconscious” symbolic gesture, signifying her readiness to have sex with her husband. For a moment she was startled by this far-fetched explanation, but having an open mind she began to laugh and accepted the task.
When she told this to her husband, “He said it was the craziest thing he had ever heard!” However, from then on whenever the husband found the cupboard door open, he just looked thoughtful, and quietly closed it.
This is a brilliant recategorization, because although it was directed at the husband, it will influence both the husband and the wife. It doesn’t matter how crazy they both think the recategorization is, it will still be in their minds, indelibly, whenever they encounter the cupboard door. The husband will certainly be thinking about the open door in a very different way, one that is likely to elicit pleasant thoughts and anticipation, rather than irritation! And since usually men want sex more often than women, she will probably close the door more often, to avoid inviting sex at times when she doesn’t want it.
I rush to emphasize that this intervention did not arise out of a Freudian preoccupation with sex and sexual symbolism. It came out of a commitment to reorienting the couple away from their previous categorizations and toward new ones that are much more pleasant. Previously, probably both were attending to the past. Certainly she was looking at her husband’s insistence on closing it as a result of a general category, his “rigid orderliness,” and likely he was thinking of her leaving it open as a result of her “sloppiness,” or perhaps even her “rebelliousness,” or her “indifference to his wishes,” etc.
Now they will both think of it as a sign of her willingness to have sex, which is in the present, rather than the past, and directs their attention to a pleasant shared future event. Her idea about his “rigid orderliness” is not challenged, and his ideas about her sloppiness, rebelliousness, or indifference don’t need to be changed. The open cupboard door has changed from a signal to argue, to a signal to think of a very different kind of interaction.
Limits of recategorization Of course there are limits to recategorization. Calling a car “food” won’t get even the most radical constructivist to eat it, and it would be foolish to try. A recategorization has to fit somehow into the person’s world-view, even if it is only accepted as “a crazy idea,” as in the previous examples.
However, if you look around you, you will find that some people categorize many events very differently than you do. Other people pay lots of money to do things that would be horribly unpleasant for me, because I categorize them differently. Most people would agonize over spending a couple of years writing a book, but I have enjoyed learning from a project that I hope will also be useful to others. The opportunities for recategorization to fit a particular person are much greater than most of us usually imagine. Most of the time we don’t need to worry about the limitations of recategorizing; we need to worry about our limitation in imagining a recategorization that might work.
For instance, once Virgina Satir “worked with a woman who had been abused by her father when she was young. He had beaten her severely with a bullwhip, then took her to her grandparents’ house, dumped her, and never came back. Virginia’s reframe was that abandoning her in this way was the father’s ultimate gesture of love; he realized he was out of control, so he left her at the grandparents’ house and never saw her again to avoid any chance of hurting her further.”
Personally, I think that Satir’s categorization of the father was pretty unlikely. But it was acceptable to the woman, and allowed her to feel more resourceful about herself and her painful past, and move on with her life.
Cloe Madanes, a strategic family therapist, describes her work with a suicidal man:
Recently I was asked by a businessman friend to do a consultation with one of his clients, who’d told him he was planning to commit suicide. In our first appointment, I asked this overweight, sad-looking man how I could help him. He told me that he came from a poor, uneducated family and he’d been the first one in the family to get a college education. Success and hard work had always been central in his life. Then he explained that he’s been laid off a year ago and was in such despair over not being able to find work that he was considering suicide.
Before reading further to find out what Madanes did, pause to think about how you might help this man by recategorizing his situation. . . .
“You’re going to have to explain this better to me because I don’t understand it,” I said. “You’re saying you’re going to kill yourself because you’re not working? That’s strange. Could you please explain?”
He looked puzzled and replied, “Work’s very important to a person’s self-esteem. I feel worthless.”
“You’re going to have to explain that better,” I said, “I still don’t get it.”
He smiled a little, not sure whether I was joking.
“I’m serious,” I said. “I’m quite a bit older than you–a child of the 60s. In my generation, nobody wanted to work. We were proud of not working. We wanted to tune in and drop out. So what’s so great about work that you want to kill yourself because you don’t have it?”
He was looking at me as if I’d come from outer space. He said, “I always though work was important. I have a strong work ethic.”
“Hmm, so what was the work you did.”
“I’m an engineer, and I always worked in plants manufacturing weapons.”
“Oh, great!” I said. “So the world is a better place because you don’t work!”
By now he was smiling broadly. I said, “Look, eventually, you’ll go back to work, that’s inevitable. And then you’ll look back on this period when you could have done so many things and had so much fun with regret, because you won’t have time anymore to do the things you want to do. Do you have a girlfriend?”
“No,” he said, “I don’t have any money.”
“Since when is love related to money!” I asked. “If I were you, I’d find a woman and go to the beach, the park, the mountains. Go to the zoo.”
He called me the next day at my office and said: “I just wanted to let you know that it’s a beautiful day.”
“Yes,” I agreed.
“And I’m at the zoo,” he continued, and then he paused, “with a woman.”
I said: “Great! I’m at my office, working.”
He wrote me a letter a year later to tell me he was happy and working and to thank me for our conversation.
When you try a recategorization that doesn’t work, you can always say, “Oh, so that way of thinking about it doesn’t fit for you,” and drop that one and try another one, as Virginia Satir always did. Or you can step aside physically, talk to the space that you were occupying a moment ago, and blame it on someone else, as a way of joining with the client and regaining rapport. “Damn, I knew that wouldn’t fit for you, but my supervisor insisted that I try it,” or “I read about that in an article, and I didn’t think it would work, but I just had to find out.”