When to model a problem

27 situations
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While Symbolic Modelling is an outcome-orientated approach, that doesn’t mean ignoring or avoiding problems, quite the contrary. Problems play a significant role in Penny Tompkins and my Problem-Remedy-Outcome (PRO) model.  This aims to fully acknowledge clients’ problems – precisely as they experience them. Problems are also nearly always addressed is the ‘maturing changes’ phase. 

For us, as well as ‘for what purpose?’, inviting a client to attend to a problem involves three factors: when, how and to what depth. 

Below are 27 situations when I consider facilitating a person or group to self-model a problem.

Phases refer to our Symbolic Modelling Lite model.

Phase 2

  • When they don’t have or can’t state a desired outcome
  • When they repeatedly define their experience by what they don’t want
  • When they habitually describe their problems

Phase 3

  • When they can’t develop a desired outcome landscape in any detail 
  • When they can only attend to their desired outcome for a few moments at a time
  • When their desired outcomes keep changing 
  • When desired outcomes are repeatedly attached to problems (dO but P)
  • When a problem overwhelms their desired outcome 

Phase 4

  • When the desired outcome repeatedly leads to problems.
  • When they know they can’t achieve their outcome and they can’t accept that.
  • When the effects of a desired outcome are unacceptable and the desire cannot be given up or managed.
  • When there are no acceptable solutions to a problem.
  • When the proposed Remedy is the Problem.
  • When the conditions necessary for a desired outcome to happen can’t be identified
  • When the conditions necessary for a desired outcome to happen can’t be met.
  • When the likely effects are a danger for (vulnerable or dependent) others.
  • When the problem (or it’s effect) is realised as desirable.  

Phase 5

  • When changes keep resulting in problems 

After Phase 6

  • When they achieve their desired outcome but cannot sustain it.
  • When they repeated fail to achieve what they say they want.
  • When insights/learnings/changes in the session have no effect afterwards.

Other general conditions:

  • To uncover a directly relevant desired outcome (rather than a very general outcome).
  • To identify ‘choice point(s)’ before or during a problem pattern.
  • To get their attention.
  • When they don’t know they have a problem (but others know).
  • When their ‘positive’ behaviour unintentionally keeps them from getting what they say they want.
  • When it seems self-deception is having a substantial (unwanted) effect.


Jacqueline Ann Surin added (19 April 2024) : 

And sometimes, a client might say, “I’d like to explore the problem so I can figure out what it’s all about.” 

I replied:

Thanks for this neat suggestion. That makes 28!

The client statement is an interesting surface structure because it is in the form of: desired outcome to explore and figure out a problem. And as you know, generally I favour facilitating a client to have exactly what they want. In this case, that would be to facilitate the client to self-model their problem landscape. 

And at the same time, I wonder to myself ‘how will the client know they have “explored” the problem enough? 

Often, underneath this structure is a desire to not have the problem (i.e. a remedy) along with a common belief that we can only solve a problem when we have “figured out” the cause. Whereas, experiencing an embodied desired outcome landscape can cast the problem in a new light and sometimes a client can ‘move on’ without ever having to ‘solve’ the problem.

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