There I was in baking hot Cairo in Egypt. Not deep in an ancient stone sky-scraping pyramid, but gazing up mesmerized at the beautiful stained glass window in an old Coptic church. As the sunlight streamed down towards me, transformed into rainbow rays by the skilled handiwork of the ancient glassmakers, I realized that here was a wonderful metaphor for human life and experience.
The light from the window was given its varying shapes and colours by the designs on the glass, but essentially all the light behind the window was from the very same source. The glass introduced nothing new, but made visible the different wavelengths of that light, with all its colour and variation.
People look and seem different from each other, but this is all just local ‘shape and colour’ created by our perceptual filters, acting like the stained glass. We are all driven by the same hopes, fears and inspirations. Behind the façade of differences and appearances we’re all infused with the same ‘light of humanity’.
I believe we can only start to overcome prejudice when we understand that despite what seem to be differences we all share the same problems and needs in life, no matter what our nationality, religion or race.
This architectural metaphor also brings out something else for therapists.
Don’t get bamboozled by your client
When gazing at a stained glass window it’s easy to find all your attention focused on the different outlines, colours and textures – the ‘story’ presented by the window – and forget that the significant pattern underlying it all is light from the sun.
When treating clients we can get hypnotized by detail, by the shape and colour of the person’s life, the minutiae and ins-and-outs of their issues – leaving us confused and overwhelmed. These details have value, of course, but we also need to keep in mind the larger underlying patterns.
No matter how complex their experience seems to be, it is essential to ask: “What is the underlying pattern of their experience?” If we don’t do this, we become powerless to help them.
So when you encounter a client with a complicated mess of problems, there are three universal psychological principles you can deploy to get through the details and identify what’s really going on.
Here are my 3 easy psychotherapy techniques, which cut through the detail and to your client’s real problem.
Three vital questions to ask yourself when listening to clients’ stories
1. What are they not getting from their life?
People develop psychological problems when needs are unfulfilled. We all have Primal Human Needs (1) in common, in spite of the different colour, texture and shape of our individual lives.
We all need to:
- feel safe and secure day to day
- give and receive attention
- have a sense of some control and influence over events in life
- feel stretched and stimulated by life to avoid boredom
- have fun sometimes and feel life is enjoyable
- feel intimate with at least one other human being
- feel connected to and part of a wider community
- be able to have privacy and time to privately reflect
- have a sense of status, a recognizable and appreciated role in life
- have a sense of competence and achievement
- a sense of meaning about life and what we do.
When these needs are adequately met in a balanced way, life feels meaningful.
When people are telling you about their difficulties and all the ways in which they are unhappy, look beyond the coloured window to the light behind. These primal needs span space and time and are as common to the ancient Egyptian stone mason as to the modern software programmer.
2. What ‘faulty pattern matching’ is going on?
When something happens in the world around you, your brain tries to instantly match this new experience to something you’ve experienced before so that, hopefully, you can respond appropriately.
It’s time to eat – you smell food – you salivate in preparation.
An external pattern has triggered a (useful) internal pattern.
The extent to which our pattern matching works effectively corresponds to how ‘well adjusted’ we are to life. But sometimes there is a faulty match.
For example, a phobic inadvertently matches a fear pattern to the pattern of something that isn’t dangerous at all.
A man might have learned to fear challenges and opportunities because of negative conditioning in his upbringing. He may then find it difficult to meet his needs to be stretched and stimulated, as well as his need for a sense of competence and achievement.
A woman may fear the prospect of a new relationship because of a past one that was abusive. This may put a serious block on her primal need for intimacy.
Good pattern matching is essential for existing effectively in the world but can go wrong in all sorts of ways. Look for faulty pattern matching behind the detail in your clients’ lives.(2)
3. What are their metaphors telling you?
It’s a curious thing, but people often unconsciously let you know what is really important to them by elaborating personal metaphors around the issues that matter most.
They might describe themselves as feeling trapped, or lost, or in a very dark place. They might say their relationship is stale.
Think how metaphorical people become when describing that most important of personal experiences, physical pain. They might talk of burning or stabbing pain or like an icy prodding finger.
It seems that the more something matters to us, the more metaphorical we become when talking about it. So to discern what might be really important to your client, listen carefully for more elaborate metaphor and consider what it is pointing to.
So in short
- identify what emotional needs remain unfulfilled
- look for any faulty pattern matching they are doing
- listen out for metaphors in what they say.
And remember – things are always simpler than they seem ‘behind the glass’.
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