June 1, 2015

The basement metaphor: finding past successes in the basement of our brain

One of the important parts of the progress-focused approach is to make visible what has worked in the past. Progress-focused coaches, for example, ask their clients questions about their past successes. When those clients find examples of past successes they generally become more positive and optimistic. Furthermore, they often come up with some ideas about how they might take a step forward. This might sound a bit strange. Why would something which has worked before not be visible right away? Why should you make an effort to make it visible? You have already experienced it, haven't you? And it was a positive experience. Why wouldn't you remember it, anyway? 

In The invisibility of what works (2008) I explain why it is actually normal that you are not consciously aware of what has worked before. My explanation is that the number of things which have worked in the past is so overwhelmingly great that it would be impossible, and highly inefficient, to carry all these memories with you all of the time. The capacity of our conscious attention is quite limited. We reserve our conscious attention for thing for what we think is important and urgent. Often those things are the things on our to do list and problems of threats with which we are faced. The large majority of all things which have worked in the past are not relevant for what we are doing now. Therefore we don't need to be aware of them constantly. It would be a waste of mental energy. 

The large majority of things which have worked in the past has, as it were, sunk to the basement of our brain, where they are not so easily visible an accessible to us. When we are suddenly confronted with a new problem it is quite possible that we have no ideas about to solve it. Perhaps we are thinking that we are not capable of solving it because we do not directly have an idea about how to do it. But I think that we often underestimate ourselves. As progress-focused practice often suggests, we have more useful ideas and solutions at our disposal than we often initially think. 

One of the important things progress-focused coaches often do is to focus the attention of their clients on finding out what has worked for them previously in a situation which is kind of similar to their current situation. The basement metaphor is useful for describing this process. In that metaphor, the present is the living room where clients find themselves now. They cannot see any past successes or solutions lying around there, so they have no idea about what they should do to solve their problem or achieve their goal. The progress-focused coach then subtly suggests, mainly through carefully formulated questions,  to descend the basement stairs and to search for some past successes in the basement. 

Initially, clients may hesitate to go down the basements stairs because they do not really expect to find any solutions, there. After acknowledging that this might indeed be possible, the coach kindly encourages them to try. Once they are in the basement, clients might not find past successes, right away. By, again, subtle encouragements the coach invites them to search some more, perhaps behind some boxes that are standing there, or in some dark corners. When clients do that the chance increases that they find something which might be a past success. By continuing to ask interested questions, the coach helps to analyse this past success. When that has happened the coach asks whether the process was useful, how it was useful, and what idea the client has about a step forward. Step by step, clients rediscover their relevant past successes. 

When we help clients to calmly start looking for past successes in the basement of their brain they usually come up with some useful ideas for a step forward. Often, they are surprised that they have found something useful in the basement of their brain. But, really, we shouldn't be surprised anymore. That basement is much bigger than we think and there is a lot of useful stuff lying around there. 

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