The Trans-Mental and Trans-Temporal Problem Solver

I just recently delivered a talk at the 2016 Brief Therapy Conference in San Diego and made a promise to my audience that I would send a one page summary of the talk and attach a link to the slides, which can be found at my website.

Milton Erickson often warned his students of the danger that comes with psychological theories and how they can set artificial limits that interfere with adaptation and flexible problem solving. Even as we Ericksonian teachers promote this value, we sometimes get ourselves trapped behind artificial limits when we present unbalanced ideas such as “trust the unconscious” or “focus on the future during problem solving.” Non-qualified statements such as these can cause practitioners to believe that all therapy is limited to work with the unconscious mind or that no important work is done while examining the past, or the present moment.

The main point of this workshop was to encourage people to view all problems as an opportunity—an opportunity to learn more about what you can do with the unconscious mind, and the conscious mind, as well as the emotional mind. When looking for happiness or meaning, at least 1/3rd of it is held in the past, and another 1/3rd in the present, and another 1/3rd in the future. There is no reason why we should not explore all of our options during problem solving.

Hopefully, the slides have enough detail that you will be able to see what this type of problem solving might look like. Briefly, I can outline a few guidelines that help guide our use of mental resources.

  1. The unconscious mind is big, fast, and consumes very little energy; so we trust big problems to the hidden process work of the unconscious, as well as life-or-death situations that require immediate action. The drawback to the unconscious is that it does not understand complex contingencies and thus sometimes arrives at overly simplistic associations (or “superstitions”). Furthermore, the unconscious is highly conservative, it thrives on habit and familiarity, and thus it struggles with rapidly changing environments. One way to engage the unconscious mind is through hypnosis or learning to be sensitive to our dreams and the conclusions of the heart and gut.
  2. The conscious mind is logical, precise, and attracted to novelty; so we trust problems of precision, organization, and the evaluation of change to the conscious mind (and the math it can produce). This math does not always have to be on paper. Sometimes I might ask a client, “What is the probability that this will work?” If the answer is below 75%, then I will ask, “What can we do to increase the probability of success?” This little bit of help from the conscious mind has often made big differences in therapy.
  3. The emotional mind is….very emotional. Thus it produces energy, keeps our attention focused, and implements instinctual solutions. Emotions are vitally important for motivation and decision making, but even more so, we need the stimulation that the emotional mind produces so that we can learn from mistakes and strive toward future progress. One way to engage the emotional mind is to sit with someone else and tell the story of your life, the “big moments,” as well as any hopes/dreams that you are willing to hold onto.

There is much more that could be said about this important subject, enough for a large book. But even this brief overview can be helpful if you keep in mind that these natural problem solving resources are all waiting to be used by you or your clients, and they grow stronger with each intentional application.

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