We all work from a set of assumptions – mainly without being aware of what they are. Here I talk about a recent insight that reminded me of the importance of raising them to our awareness.
If I start with my mine, “what’s this about,” assumes that what people are doing is purposeful – they’re doing it for a reason. This is obviously going to influence the direction I take in therapy. Dr Bandler’s phrase, “How are they doing it?” doesn’t concern itself with whatever is driving the behaviour (assuming something is – you see how I made my assumption again?) but more with the behaviour itself. It’s possible, even probable that purpose will be part of how they’re doing it, but it doesn’t sound as if it’s a primary focus, just as my start point has purpose in the foreground, but how they’re doing it will also form part of what their problem is about. Our assumptions will lead us in one direction over another, mainly without us realising it, and after a while this direction will tend to become a habitual default – we’ll have a way of doing therapy that is likely to become less flexible.
So this is more about getting you to think about the assumptions that underlie your therapy, or anything else that’s important to you. It’s not that they’re bad, which is lucky because we cannot operate without them, it’s just that, because they spring from beliefs, we mistake them for being true.
Assumptions are things our brains have come to conclusions about as a result of our life experiences, and they operate in every part of our life. So I got to thinking about the assumptions I make in my therapy. Clearly one of them is that most behaviours have a purpose (I really mean all, but I left myself with an out), another is that client’s aren’t broken, they have everything they need except the insight about how to create alternatives to their problem; that the insight is better if it comes from them, not you. All of a sudden, as I’m typing, the assumptions are flowing out of me, and all of them feel right. I assume that change can happen quickly, an assumption that isn’t shared by a lot of people from the counselling and psychotherapy worlds. I’m not saying that my assumption is right, but you can see how an assumption that change takes time will drive a very different kind of therapeutic relationship to mine.
What we’re talking about here really are the assumptions we all have about human nature. Within psychology there’s a strong argument that the direction it has taken over the last hundred years has been influenced by the Western concept of original sin that was transposed into a secular form by Freud, who saw civilisation as just an elaborate defence against basic conflicts over infantile aggression and sexuality. This view that there is something wrong with us from the beginning leads to therapies who intrinsically believe there are bad bits to cut out. The advent of Positive Psychology with Martin Seligman in the late nineties has moved the goal posts; it works from an assumption that we’re all functioning creatures who experience problems of living, but who are basically good and looking to live a good life. Therapy becomes a process of enhancing what we have that works to remedy what doesn’t.
So I invite you to ask yourself, what assumptions are you making about human nature that influence your approach to your clients? Do you believe people are basically good or bad? Are they selfish or generous? Are they broken or badly programmed? Does change take time, or can it be instant? Are you the expert, or is your client?
Spend a little time as I did letting your assumptions flow from you and writing them down – and they can be about therapy or anything else that’s on your mind – you might be amazed at how you notice them affecting you. By doing so, and recognising them as useful but not necessarily true, you can begin to recognise other choices that are possible when your natural assumptions aren’t helping.
This is also available as a podcast.