I have been learning a lot from asking couples in my therapy practice and coaching sessions a simple question this week. I didn’t think it would have as big an effect on my sessions, but it really turned out to be such a powerful intervention and I am not going to stop using it. It’s sort of a pop quiz for my couples. The first question is, “What is something you did to improve your relationship this week?”
After learning what the couples picked, I quickly follow it up with, “What did you learn from doing that?”
Not only has this relationship question seemed to be a real winner for my therapy clients, but it has also really affected me.
John, Josie, and Mark, three different counseling clients I was seeing this week, all did their homework in couples counseling and their answers surprised me! Before I tell you their stories, I want to pull back the veil and let you in on a little secret. I think my work is really about helping partners take accountability and make individual changes. When they are able to each work on an autonomous goal, they can make the biggest difference.
Let me explain. If Mary and Joe each come to couples therapy with a complaint about the other that is in direct opposition to one another, there is little that can be done without some changes within Mary or Joe. This doesn’t mean that Mary or Joe has to give up on their desires, but it does mean that there is going to need to be some internal work. One thing I can guarantee is that if Mary and Joe don’t do some experimenting, they are going to be stuck at an impasse. In other words if one of them doesn’t examine their response to the other they will stay stuck. Let’s return to the three relationship scientists that I saw this week.
I asked John, “What’s something you did to improve your relationship this week?”
John said, “I tried to let her know where I was at and learn where she was”.
Then I inquired further about how that went and what was said. I then asked that new magic question what did you learn from it? And the answer was amazing! The answer wasn’t amazing because it was surprising, but because John learned something that no therapist can really convey without a person explaining it. He said he learned that he was able to have a discussion and it could really go back and forth.
Do you know how many therapists have said to clients like John, “Hey if you just tell her what you are thinking you and she may have some different conversations than if you are just silent and void.”
Josie told me that she experimented with trying to understand how stressed her husband is with his work situation. She said she learned that by holding her tongue a few times she started to see that his stress wasn’t about her and that she was taking some of his attitude personally. This one amazed me because Josie was able to understand that she was taking things personally and, if she didn’t work on that, she couldn’t get what she was looking for.
Her initial goal to be happy couldn’t happen if she didn’t work on herself.
Mark told me that he tried to be nice to his wife this past week. The answer to what he learned was not too shocking! She treated him nicer in return. I added this one because it made me smile and it demonstrates the power of how it only takes one to change. I may learn that this antidote gets me in trouble, because a lot of my couples come in and tell me they have tried everything to help their relationship and nothing works. They may not like my example about Mark. They want their husband or wife to experiment like Mark. I get it!
These stories and my own experience have reminded me the value of self-reflection.
As John Dewey once said,
We do not learn from experience…we learn from reflecting on experience.
For me, some of my own learning this week came from asking the question “Well, what did I learn?”
I had a client get frustrated during a session and I had to think about what I was learning. What I came up with was that when I asked a question a certain way to a certain client it created an unintended consequence.
What I hope to teach my clients is that being a mad scientist and trying out new ways of doing things is a very powerful way to get through an impasse. It is only by trying a different route and then reflecting on how it went that we can make a difference. Sometimes a scientist puts a drop in a beaker and nothing happens. Sometimes a drop in a beaker blows up the laboratory. I really enjoy learning new things in my laboratory.