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Principles of Problem Formation and Resolution
Chapter: Psychotherapy
Paul Watzlawick, John Weakland, and Richard Fisch
Published by W. W. Norton and Co/NY in 1974
Book Review by Bobby Matherne ©2007


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The Preface begins with a famous story about relationships. An army in Tyrol had surrounded the impregnable castle Hochosterwitz and had it under siege. The army was getting restless and the commander had other pressing things to do. Inside, the fortress commandant was faced with the fact that they were down to their last ox and last barrel of barley. What he decided to do was the stuff of which myths are made: he had the ox slaughtered, had its guts filled with barley, and had the ox thrown over the side of the castle. The army became so discouraged at seeing this message of disdain for their siege that they pulled up their tent stakes and went away. This example shows the theme of this book dramatically.

[page xiii] It deals with the age-old questions of persistence and change in human affairs. More particularly, it is concerned with how problems arise, and how they are perpetuated in some instances and resolved in others. Most of all, it examines how, paradoxically, common sense and "logical" behavior often fail, while actions as "illogical" and unreasonable as those taken by the defenders of Hochosterwitz succeed in producing a desired change.

From the authors' work at the Mental Research Institute in Palo Alto, they were accustomed to looking at things in the present rather than the past, in terms of the here and now process instead of the reified content that constituted the past. They also had considerable experience with the "startling and innovative techniques of Milton Erickson" - a master of hypnotherapy, who often got results in the most counter intuitive manner. Infusing all of their approaches and techniques was communication and change.

[page xv] It is difficult to imagine how any behavior in the presence of another person can avoid being a communication of one's own view of the nature of one's relationship with that person and how it can, therefore, fail to influence that person.

To introduce the concept of change, look at those parts of one's experience that is constant first. As I read the passage below some twenty years ago, I drew a cartoon of two fishes talking. One fish is responding to the other, "Water? What's that?" When one is in a constant environment, one without change, it's difficult to notice those things that are constant, much less to talk about them or discuss them. As Rudolf Steiner said almost a century ago, "discussion begins when the thing discussed is not known." To perceive the invariant parts of one's experience as something to be discussed means to make some part of it unknown. Making the known into the unknown is something that an artist does in the process of producing an art work. The artist takes known colors, mixes them and applies them in some unique combination and the result is something previously unknown to the world, a new art work.

[page 1] In the Western world the philosophers of science seem to agree that change is such a pervasive and immediate element of our experience that it could become the subject of thought [RJM: i.e., discussion] only after the early Greek philosophers had been able to conceptualize the antithetical concept of invariance or persistence. Until then there was nothing that change could be conceptually contrasted with (this is a matter of conceptualizing experience, not of finding "reality"), and the situation must have been like one proposed by Whorf: that in a universe in which everything is blue, the concept of blueness cannot be developed for lack of contrasting colors.

Another important process for understanding change is the theory of logical types that explains how the words used to describe a member of a class are often used to describe the class itself, which exists at a higher level or logical type. An item on a menu and the menu itself are two logical types and Bateson like to point out that "only a schizophrenic is likely to eat the menu card instead of the meal (and complain of its bad taste, we would add)." (page 9) Another example Bateson gives is the word wave which can be applied both to the class of movements and a single member of a class. "Under friction, this meta movement will not lose velocity as would the movement of a particle." A change within a class or a system in which the system remains unchanged is called a first order change. The individual movement of a water molecule in a water wave or local currents due to a fish passing by would be an example of first order change in the wave. A change, such as the appearance of a thunderstorm that increases the height of the wave would be a second order change. In a dream, to move from one scene to another is a first order change, but to wake up is a second order change. As becomes clearer, the further one reads into this book, the authors are focused on second order change, a "change of change", so to speak, a change that makes a difference.

What about change that makes no difference? The authors give several examples. The wife who divorces a weak man to marry a strong one and finds that the source of her discontent remains. During WWII, the Nazis posted a sign giving the choice "National Socialism or Bolshevik chaos?" This meant to imply that the Nazi choice was obvious over the Bolshevik one. The underground pasted a sign under the poster that said, "Erdäpfel oder Kartoffel?" which translates to "Spuds or Potatoes?" in English. A similar case could be today made for the choice in the USA between many Republican or Democrat policies. When people in a relationship are in hurting circumstances, their common choice is for change that makes no change at all, namely, first order change, up until now.

There is a connection of opposites that drives one irrepressibly into the other. Jung called the process by which this happens "enantiodrama." It is as if one cannot discover a way to affect real change, second-order change, by staying within the system. The authors, writing at the close of the 1960s predict the following enantiodrama which seem to have been played out in society today:

[page 21] And, to cast a brief glance into the future, it is a fairly safe bet that the offspring of our contemporary hippie generation will want to become bank managers and will despise communes, leaving their well-meaning but bewildered parents with the nagging question: Where did we fail our children?

"Beware the Enantiodrome, my friend," and "Be aware of its working in your life," would be good advice to all. Why is it so easy for the Enantiodrome to hide from us? It hides in the shadows; in Jung's terms, it is the Shadow, that discounted and pushed away part of ourselves that sneaks back when we're not looking.

Everyone has heard of the nine dots problem and how the solution to it involves "thinking outside of the box." Here's a summary of the problem as the authors laid it out a quarter of a century ago. "The nine dots shown in Figure 1 are to be connected by four straight lines without lifting the pencil from the paper."

[page 25] Almost everybody who first tries to solve this problem introduces as part of his problem-solving an assumption which makes the solution impossible. The assumption is that the dots compose a square and that the solution must be found within that square, a self-imposed condition which the instructions do not contain. His failure, therefore, does not lie in the impossibility of the task, but in his attempted solution. Having now created the problem, it does not matter in the least which combination of four lines he now tries, and in what order, he always finishes with at least one unconnected dot. This means that he can run through the totality of the first-order change possibilities existing within the square but will never solve the task. The solution is a second-order change which consists in leaving the field . . .

Consider now that the unsolved problems in our personal life remain unsolvable for a similar reason: we have adopted and self-imposed conditions that were not in the original instructions and we cannot find a way out of the problem so long as we remain within our self-imposed limits. Those limits are like water is to fishes: a pervasive and unconscious part of their milieu. We cannot see our eyes except in a mirror because they are part of our seeing apparatus. Likewise we cannot see our problem because it is part of the way we see the world. In that case, a counselor, who exists outside our self-imposed limits and can see our problem in its totality, can offer suggestions that we would have never considered from within the problem.

What happens if we choose as a counselor a close friend or neighbor? Usually the friend sees our problem through the same filter of limitations as we do and cannot come up with any better solution that we can on our own. Their solutions are better than doing nothing, so we apply them, one by one, but no matter how many we apply, nothing gets better. We may even begin to think, "This problem is impossible - look at how many things I've tried." More of the same in personal problems, just like trying more combinations of four lines in the nine-dot problem, will not result in a solution, but only a feeling of hopelessness.

What about such pernicious social evils as pornography or drugs? Will more of the same repressive laws ever solve the problem? Read what the authors say about it. If I may summarize their observation: "the problem is the solution."

[page 33] But the Danish example has shown that the complete liberalization of pornography has not only not opened the floodgates of sin and general depravity, but has actually made people ridicule and ignore it. In the case of pornography, then, the "more of the same" solution (legal repression) is not just the greater of two problems, it is the problem, for without the "solution" there would be no problem.

But, I can hear at least one of my readers saying, what about the effects on our children? Won't that lead them to become godless, evil, and lazy? My answer to that question would be, "How would we tell the difference from the way they are now?" And is that really any different from the attitude that adults have had of their children and teenagers for all of written history? If you doubt this statement, read what was impressed into cuneiform clay tablets:

[page 33] A Babylonian clay tablet whose age has been estimated to be at least three thousands years reads: "Today's youth is rotten to the core, it is evil, godless, and lazy. It will never be what youth used to be, and it will never be able to preserve our culture."

On page 35 is where I first encountered the phenomenon of the "Be Spontaneous Paradox" which was later given the name by the authors in Chapter 6, Paradoxes. "Sleep is by its very nature a phenomenon which can occur only spontaneously. It cannot occur spontaneously when it is willed." The willing of any spontaneous act makes it impossible for the act to proceed due to the paradoxical nature of the command. "Smile!" when said to the subjects of an imminent snapshot will produce a dutiful faked smile, not a genuine smile. "Tell me you love me." will produce the opposite effect of what one intends and is disastrous to any relationship, if continued over long enough period of time. Experts in the BSP abound once one becomes aware of this harmful process which claims to produce wanted results, but instead tends to undermine the very reality it claims to create. Once again we have an example of relationship interactions in which the problem is the solution.

In Paradoxes I found the following passage which may well have become the original inspiration for my creation of the 21st Century Marriage Contract. The nine dots problem was the box that we know as the usual marriage vows. In creating the contract, I built the box and defined my wife-to-be and myself as outside the box by inverting the logic or sense of every spoken marriage vow or unspoken expectation that I could conjure up at the time, and she and I undertook an overt negotiation over the clauses of the contract.

[page 73] In general, the problems encountered in marriage therapy more often than not have to do with the almost insurmountable difficulty of changing the quid pro quo on which the relationship was originally based. Of course, this quid pro quo is never the outcome of overt negotiation, but is rather in the nature of a tacit contract whose conditions the partners may be quite unable to verbalize, even though they are extremely sensitive to any violations of these unwritten clauses. If conflict arises, the partners typically attempt to solve it within the framework of the contract, and they thus get caught in a nine-dot problem of their own making. For whatever they do within the frame is being done on the basis of group property a, and therefore leaves their overall pattern of relationship (the group of their relationship behaviors) unchanged. Tacit interpersonal contracts of the kind we are examining here are bound to become obsolete, if only as the result of the passage of time, and the necessary change then has to be a change of the contract itself (i.e., a second-order change) and not merely a first-order change within the bounds of the contract.

Confucius quote on page 77 says, "The way out is through the door. Why is it no one will use this exit?" Is it perhaps because the door is not visible against the background of the invariance of first order change? Or perhaps because we fear to step outside the comfortable box filled with problems we already know about?

Another form of paradoxical injunction is when a parole officer tells the newly released convict, "Trust me." The officer is an agent of the state and has to enforce the rules and thus is not really worthy of the trust of the convicts. The authors, in training parole officers, found it useful to suggest that they tell their parolees, "You should never fully trust me or tell me everything." This has the sound of truth more than the "Trust me" statement and leads to the necessary development of trust for a successful interaction between parole officer and parolee.

The Gentle Art of Reframing chapter begins with the classic fence painting story of Tom Sawyer. Simply by a subtle reframing of painting as fun rather than work, Tom acquires a bevy of volunteer helpers. Tom's skills would apply well to that of being a psychotherapist, as it is usually fruitless to merely point to a doorway out of a client's problem, they must be led to consider that walking through the doorway is preferable to remaining inside the security of their all too familiar problem space.

We must ever be aware of what motivates anyone that we would wish to understand or motivate. This quote from Francis Bacon goes back to 1577 and is still much applicable today:

[page 105] "If you would work any man, you must either know his nature or fashions, and so lead him; or his ends, and so persuade him, or his weakness and disadvantages, and so awe him; or those that have interest in him, and so govern him. In dealing with cunning persons, we must ever consider their ends to interpret their speeches; and it is good to say little to them, and that which they least look for."

The setting of goals for a therapeutic contract is one of the things covered in the Practice of Change chapter. If one approaches the presenting problem as the tip of the iceberg, the "way toward the solution will be long, tortuous, and even dangerous." On the contrary the authors set up a positive Rosenthal Effect by setting concrete, reachable goals. The power of expectation in achieving results was shown experimentally by Rosenthal in 1966. EAT-O-TWIST means Everything Allways Turns Out The Way It's Supposed To, and this epigrammatic acronym that I crafted some twenty plus years ago was based in part on my understanding of Rosenthal's work.

[page 112] Robert Rosenthal has presented experimental evidence that the opinions, outlooks, expectations, and theoretical as well as practical biases of the experimenter, interviewer, or we would add, therapist, even if never made explicit, have a definite effect on the performance of his subjects, whether they are rats or humans.

There is a potpourri of therapeutic approaches in the penultimate chapter Exemplifications. Dealing with the "Why Don't You, Yes But" game players is one of them. My approach to such people on the Crisis Line was to listen to their problem, offer half a dozen solutions, to which the predictable response would come, "Yes, but I tried that, etc." And then I would pause, take a deep breath and say in the most authoritative voice I could muster, "I have listened carefully to your responses as I offered you solutions, and now I must tell that in light of my years of experience and professional knowledge I think that your situation is hopeless." Then I would wait -- I could almost hear their resisting muscles flexing on the other end of the phone line. Soon, they would say, "But, what if I ..." and would offer a slight modification of something that I had suggested earlier. I would say, "Yes, but remember that ..." and I would repeat one of the many objections to change that they had offered me earlier. All the while this interchange went on, a remarkable thing had happened: they were on their own side! They were offering suggestions to be tried, any one of which might get them through the door of solution to their problem, if they chose to actually apply it. The hopelessness was now gone, and life seemed manageable again.

People say they want change when what they want is for things to stay the same while their problem is invisibly lifted from them without any effort on their part. Or perhaps they want change, but change is so scary to them that they reject every change out of hand for some spurious reason. An oyster has very strong muscles that prevent it from being opened against its will. When an oyster shucker opens an oyster, the oyster's muscle is severed and the oyster dies. Many people in hurting situations are like the oyster, they would die rather than allow their shell to opened against their will and their problem removed from within. This book has ample suggestions about how to go about the paradoxical task of getting the oyster to willingly open its shell. Will all of these suggestions work? One can only say with the authors, "The only reliable basis for judging the value of a method remains the result achieved by its application."


Any questions about this review, Contact: Bobby Matherne


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