Why I don't ask "what if you could?"
During a recent demonstration of Symbolic Modlling, a client said: "I don't know" several times. Afterwards a student wondered why I didn't ask the client: "And you don't know, and what if you did know?". Here's my answer:
I first came across this kind of question on my NLP training. It takes the form "What if you did?" or "What if you could?". Some of the reasons we don't use this type of question in Symbolic Modelling are:
- Firstly, they are not modelling questions because they seek to change the client's experience rather than find out how it works 'as is'.
- They potentially disavow the client's not-knowing. What's wrong with not knowing?
- The client may infer knowing is better than not knowing (there are plenty of situations where this is not the case) and feel less-than if they have no answer to the question.
- The client may answer the question just to please the facilitator or to be a 'good client'.
- 'I don't know' can mean many things, including 'I don't want to tell you'. If this were the case the proposed question might be seen as pressurising the client to reveal something they'd rather keep private.
- These questions direct the client's attention away from where they are, — in a state of 'I don't know' — to some other state (which is the function of the questions). This might be a TA-style Rescue by the facilitator who may themselves be uncomfortable with a state of not knowing.
- Not being able to answer a question will put many clients in a state Robert Fritz calls "creative tension". He maintains this is an inherent part of the creative process. However rather than learning to experience and utilise it, many people's first reaction is to release/get rid of/escape the tension. Inadvertently, this type of question might privilege the client's knee-jerk away-from reaction. In Symbolic Modelling the general tendency — unless you have a good reason not to — is to 'stay put'.
- In my experience, states of not knowing are very often preludes to moments of emergence. By directing the client's attention away from their not knowing the opportunity for a creative moment may be lost.
- Finally, and perhaps most important from a modeller's perspective, 'I don't know' is a perfect answer because it delineates the limits of the client's knowledge. Knowing what is not known is as important as knowing what is known – ask Donald Rumsfeld .
In conclusion, it is a long time since I asked the 'What if you could?' type of question. I recommend that as a facilitator you have a clear intention for asking this question (before you ask it) rather than ask it because it's a slick 'solution' to a client's not knowing (which from my perspective isn't a problem in the first place, and therefore doesn't need solving).
My default when a client says "I don't know" is simply to say and do nothing. By waiting, the client and facilitator get to find out: what happens next.
What do others do?
Last edited by JamesLawley; 27 June 2009 at 05:51 PM.
Reason: typo and added last question