June 3, 2011

Like juggling the conflict away

The way we are able to focus our attention is an important key to flourishing. Research into neuroplasticity shows that every time we consciously focus our attention, we change structurally for a tiny bit. When we develop habits in the way we focus our attention on certain things long term consequences result. There can also be important immediate consequences of how we focus our attention. For example, psychological research shows that part of the reason may be that people with depression get stuck on bad thoughts because they’re unable to turn their attention away.

One of the things solution-focused coaches and therapists do is to subtly redirect the focus of attention of their clients. This is a bit like how magicians work. Magicians manipulate people's nervous system to create the illusion of magic. They direct the attention from their audience away from certain places and to other places. They cleverly use the fact that we are largely unable to focus on multiple things at once. what happens when we focus our attention is that we focus on that thing and suppress most everything else around you. The magician creates an area of attention much like a director of a movie focuses his camera on certain areas.

Solution-focused professionals do something which is a bit like this. Take the example of a solution-focused coach who was talking with two people who had a conflict: Eve, the controller, and Gerry the general manager. Eve was extremely angry and making some fierce accusations to Gerry. Gerry had said some things to employees of the bookkeeping department which Eve thought went against how she had instructed them and had create much frustration and confusion. Gerry rejected this and defended what he had done. Eve became even more emotional exclaiming Gerry made working impossible for her.

Then, the coach interrupted them politely saying: "Umm ... Eve, I am so sorry. I'm getting a bit confused here. You know, I am not really aware of how things are organized here, so I did not really understand the example you just mentioned. I'd really like to understand so that I might help you. Could you explain what this was about and how you had instructed the employees of the bookkeeping department?" Eve looked at the coach and paused for a moment. She sighed and said: "Okay." Then she explained what the situation had been about. When she did this, the coach, at several points, asked for some details. After a few minutes Eve had explained what had happened and she had also calmed down a bit. While she had explained the situation the coach had asked questions like: "What would you have wished Gerry had done, instead?", "How would that have helped?", and "What else would have helped?" Also, the coach reframed certain things Eve said. When she said: "He should not instruct them without me knowing about it", the coach reframed: "So, the next you would prefer if he'd talk to you, first?" After a few minutes, the coach turned back to Gerry and asked what he thought about what Eve asked. He said he understood what she meant and he agreed. The conversation went on and several other things were discussed. At the end of the conversation Eve and Gerry felt relieved.

One way of looking at what happend is to say that the coach, by asking some clarifying questions had redirected the focus of attention of Eve. By asking these questions he had taxed here mental capacity in such a way that it became hard for here to remain angry. While focusing on one thing it becomes too hard to focus on another thing, too. While focusing on explaining the details of the bookkeeping instructions it became impossible to do something else, namely blaming and being angry. While asking preferred situation questions and reframing, step-by-step a more constructive version of Eve's request emerged. This made it easier for Gerry to respond. The coach had not literally juggled the conflict away but it surely did look a bit like that.

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