The Structure Of Change

Here is a simple and effective structure for supporting healthy interactions in your relationship that contribute to the changes you and your partner desire. It’s simple from the standpoint of the directions. In truth, it can be difficult to consistently practice.

When confronted with problems and difficulties, many of us naturally direct our attention to what we dislike and want to change. In other words, we focus on what we don’t like and we advocate for that thing to stop. For example, perhaps you feel misunderstood in your relationship and you believe your parter is judgmental of you. You might say to her/him, “Stop judging me.” Not surprisingly s/he might become defensive and accuse you of the same behavior. Before you know it you’re both arguing over what you dislike about each other. This is typically called a “problem focused” perspective. This perspective often keeps people stuck complaining about problems and can invite defensiveness when someone feels accused of being
the problem.

One alternative is a “solution focused” perspective. A solution focused perspective puts little or no emphasis on describing the “problem” and directs attention to the specifics of how I’d like things to be. Here’s another way to think about this: Am I focused on what I want to stop or am I expressing what new thing I’d like to begin? Problem focused perspectives want something to decrease. Solution focused perspectives would like something to increase.

Rather than telling my partner to “stop judging me” I might say, “I’d like us both to be patient with each other.” Repeatedly directing attention toward a possible solution increases the likelihood that something approximating that solution may eventually take root. Focusing on the problem, however, often keeps us stuck on just the problem.

This simple practice can be used in other circumstances including advocating for yourself with strangers (i.e., “I’d like to speak with someone who can authorize my refund.”), personal growth and change (i.e., “I’d like to feel more confident and calm.”), and with parenting children (“I’d like you to save more of your money.”) In each of these examples, the speaker is directing attention toward something new, a solution. When a child hears her parent say, “stop wasting your money”, waisting money is what the child remembers. The same principle applies to conflict in your relationship.

It’s human to react negatively to pain and discomfort in your life; when something hurts it’s natural to want that thing to stop. A solution focused perspective is not positive thinking, however. It is the recognition that your specific behaviors either contribute to or inhibit the growth and change you desire in your life. Intentional and effective change begins with a vivid awareness of how you would like your experience to genuinely be. Repeated dialogue with your partner in this way more strongly supports this intention, and the possibilities for change, in your relationship. --Doug