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3 top tips to stop premature speculation in your clients

By Mark Tyrrell

We like to have meanings for things. "Why did that happen?" we ask, or "What did she mean by that?" Clarity is comfortable, not knowing less so. This is human. "What was the meaning of that thunderclap?" "The Gods are angry!"

But if we prematurely stamp meaning onto an event we lose a golden opportunity to really understand it. The first step to this, I guess, is to learn to understand and accept that you don't know why that happened yet - but you may find out.

And what has this to do with your clients?

Depressed, anxious and angry clients (and this might be one and the same client) tend to project negative meaning onto ambiguous events.

So, if the meaning of what someone said is unclear, the depressed person, rather than waiting for things to be made clear, may prematurely assume that it was a dig at them, or some kind of criticism.

Ambiguity creates a 'meaning vacuum'. But rather than sit with that information gap, the depressed person rushes to fill it with (negative) meaning.

They might be right sometimes, of course, but when emotions trip people up it's because they are being in some way misused or over-applied.

Am I imagining it or did she just snub me?

The trouble is that emotion triggers the imagination. That isn't a bad thing in itself, but if we get into the habit of automatically believing what we imagine to be the whole truth, rather than one possible interpretation of reality, problems can really assail us.

So the chronically jealous person imagines their partner is meeting a lover and their convincing imaginings become the evidence.

This is rather like what happens after a powerful dream - the angry or frightened feelings we experience in the dream, which are completely convincing in the context of that dream, can persist in us even after we've woken up. The feel completely real.

Of course, we all prematurely 'fill the meaning vacuum' with our own biases sometimes. If we are depressed, we'll provide a depressing meaning for an ambiguous event or situation. If we are in a cheerful mood we might assume good will in others, or come up with a humorous explanation for events.

The princess and the premature conclusion.....

A beautiful princess once sat herself down by an ornate pool in her palace grounds. As she leant over to gaze at her reflection in its calm surface, her priceless crown tumbled from her head and went into the water with a loud splash.

She immediately screamed for her attendants, shouting that her crown was lost, that she would never see it again, that somebody must do something! There was a flurry of frantic activity as royal aides rushed to her assistance from all sides, jumping one after the other into the pool, thrashing about in search of the precious object.

But of course all this effort did nothing but stir up a lot of mud and bring great swirls of rotten debris up from the bottom of the pool, making the water more and more murky, so that there was no way the crown could be seen, no matter how hard they looked.

The princess was now in a right paddy. "It's lost forever! I know it is! I'll never get it back!" she shrieked, while her ladies-in-waiting patted her on the arm and uttered soothing inanities.

But now who should come upon this chaotic scene but the palace story teller, a bent and bowed old man with twinkling eyes who had known the princess since she was a baby. Unflustered by the panic all around, he came and sat down at the princess's side and immediately launched into a riveting tale of times gone by, his calm sonorous voice weaving such a fascinating tapestry of love and adventure that the aides climbed out of the pool to listen, and the ladies-in-waiting stopped patting the princess on the arm and stood entranced, and the princess herself stopped shrieking and crying and quite forgot all about her lost crown, so taken up was she by the twists and turns of the story.

And so, by the time the story teller came to the end of his tale (which he had taken care to elaborate and extend and embellish for maximum effect) not only had everyone calmed down, but the mud had settled in the pool, and the water was once again shining clear.

He only had to reach his arm down into the pool to retrieve the crown, now plainly visible in all its golden bejewelled glory.

Learning to relax with waiting for clarity

But there's a real art to developing the capacity to wait - and relax with waiting - for meaning to become clearer in its own time, just like the story teller who didn't leap into the pool until things became clearer.

So what can you do to help people become more like the story teller in the tale of their own lives? Here's three tips.

1) Cast subtle doubt

If your client tells you that her friends have started avoiding her since she became depressed because she is such terrible company,gently ask evidence-seeking questions, such as:

  • Have any of them actually told you this?
  • Have you overheard your friends talking about you in this way?
  • Have you asked them why they haven't been to see you?

or even

  • Could that be the depression talking, or do you have proof that this is why you haven't seem them for a while?

You can cast doubt even more subtly than this.

I might nod my head empathically (or that's the aim) while someone is talking to me about their life and their problems, but if they start telling me, say, how "everybody at work hates me", I will stop my head nodding.

This sends an almost subliminal signal that there may be something here we can be less sure of.

Notice that we are not telling people they are wrong - maybe they are right, after all - but when you suspect that people may be filling in the meaning gap without enough real evidence, you can just cast a little doubt here and there.

2) Ask them to generate other possible interpretations

If you text your friend, or leave a message, but they don't get back to you, you could leap to the conclusion that they hate you, or they've gone off you.

But is that the only conclusion you can draw?

How about they are out of battery? They've left their phone at home? Or lost it? Maybe they're swimming, or in a movie theatre, or having a blazing row with someone and not checking their messages. Maybe they think their phone is on but actually it's switched off.

Who knows? One thing's for sure - you don't.

So what conclusion do you draw? Do you even have to draw a conclusion?

If a client gives you interpretations of events that are clearly damaging them, then help them 'train their brain' into greater flexibility and capacity to 'hold off' until the facts make themselves known by asking them to generate lots of different possible explanations.

This sounds like the old game 'How many ways can you use a brick?' and it is like that game. It gets your brain to free itself from its normal assumptions and expectations and begin to experiment, and so discover that there really are "more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy" (as Hamlet famously said to his old friend Horatio).

3) Draw a distinction between 'believing' and 'knowing'

You believe (I'm guessing!) that the earth travels around the sun and you have got pretty good reasons to believe this. But you know,from personal experience, that it hurts a lot when you stub your toe with great force against a door.

Some beliefs have more supporting evidence than others but knowledge has to do with direct experience. The complicating element is that belief can easily masquerade as knowledge, but we need to remember the difference.

You can talk to your clients about the difference between belief and knowledge and/or you can just imply by the language you use that there isa difference. This is another way of subtly casting doubt on negative belief (which has assumed the role of knowledge).

For example:

Client: I know she hates me now!

You: What are the main reasons you believe this?

Ultimately, we all need to be able to let things calm down so we can see clearly what there is to see and to be able to wait patiently until such time as we can see it.

Only then can we have a hope of making an appropriate judgement.

You can learn How to Stop Anyone Smoking with Mark Tyrrell on our Smoking Cessation Training Course (online).

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Mark Tyrrell
Creative Director