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How you define your relationship problem may ensure you don't fix it.

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What would it mean to your relationship with your parent, spouse, child or employee if how you defined the problem was not accurate or flat out wrong?

Well for one thing, none of your solutions would work. But then what if you are so attached to how you defined the problem, how would that affect solving it? Well any solution, based on how you defined the problem would continue to NOT WORK.

Human beings are meaning making machines. We must make sense of any data that is presented to us. We cannot tolerate things that don't make sense or have no meaning. People cannot accept random acts of violence, or random meaningless anything.

So when we see things in our lives or relationships that don’t work or make sense, we immediately start to look for patterns to make sense of things in our lives. We do this with our kids, with our partners or with our co-workers.

Our brains have evolved to be very good at finding patterns and applying meaning to what we observe. While we are very good at finding patterns out of randomness, we tend to see patterns incorrectly or patterns that don’t actually exist at all.

Consider all the superstitions humans have created to make sense of random information. The ancient Mayans used to believe that chopping people’s heads off would make it rain, others believed in rain dances and not so long ago it was considered 7 years of bad luck to break a mirror.

This might be silly today because of what we know about these events. But those people were making sense out of random data, they just saw patterns incorrectly and applied the meaning based on how they interpreted the data. Relationships are still mysterious and so people continue to find random patterns and try to explain them and unfortunately often see patterns incorrectly.

Science realizes the limitations of the human brain and creates methodologies to make sense of random data. Science, through statistics, clinical trials, measurements and other research based methodologies- make sense out of random data. But how many people have this information to apply to their daily lives? Unfortunately not many.

The human brain, while powerful is designed to run efficiently, sort of like a computer. We tend to pick out a solution that we think we can quickly confirm. This is known as a confirmation bias. As a result, once we think we find a solution, we give up looking and don’t  investigate to try to disprove our findings. Instead, we like to lock onto things we THINK we can easily prove, even if it may not be completely true or accurate.

Daniel Kahneman, in the book Thinking Fast, Thinking Slow, called this type of thinking, thinking fast. Fast thinking is where most of our brains tend to be operating as it is the least demanding. However, many things require slow thinking, or questioning thinking in order to assess what we are quick to judge. This is mentally laborious and often painful for people, so a person will instead avoid this type of thinking and default to fast thinking. For a full explanation read Daniel Kahneman’s book. Doing this fast thinking in relationship contributes to problems. People cannot stand to be misunderstood or not to understand and may rush to conclusions or judgments to just end a conversation.

One reason that patterns are hard for the naked human brain to see is that is that we may never learn that all that all information in the world is just meaningless data. All that people see is meaningless. It is human beings that give meaning to the data that occurs in the world. The meaning we choose to give it comes from our family origin, our gender, socioeconomic status, religion, culture, education and life experiences.

While all people live in the same world, or even same families or even same couple relationship, sometimes when you talk to the individuals in these units you'd swear they were not talking about the same relationships. This is because all people are walking around with perception filters that are different. Based on a person's perception filter is how they will apply different meaning to situations. No one has the same perception filter. Not even marriage can give you the same perception filter. It is through effective communication that we start to understand other's perception filter. So depending on your life experiences, gender, education, religion and culture you grew up in, how you apply meaning will reflect this background.  That is why every marriage is a cross cultural experience even if the two people grew up on the same block as each other. Every family is its own culture with its own rules and views and values on things.

Varying perceptions and people’s lack of awareness of perception make communication a very inaccurate tool fraught with misunderstandings. People are looking at the same data but interpret it very differently. Then when they use the tool of communication to share their perception they often ASSUME that everyone sees or thinks that the stated data has the same meaning. This assumption, as you know will make for ugly misunderstandings. This doesn't happen as much at work where we know people are different. But somehow in romantic relationships we tend to believe this person we love sees the world as we do, and this false belief or assumptions creates a lot of problems.

So this lack of knowledge of perception filter and ineffective way of communicating differences results in people labeling this phenomena as a communication problem. They will keep stating over and over in different ways how they see the data to their partner, boss, child etc and this person just doesn’t agree, and this becomes a communication problem. It is not, its a perception problem and an in ablity to acknowledge through communication.


An example of this is the following example:


Two people are looking at Brussels Sprouts. Person A loves them and thinks they are heavenly.  Person B absolutely cannot stand them and cannot see why anyone would eat them. These two people are looking at this vegetable and have very different perceptions and experiences that create their “Truth”about this vegetable.

They keep talking and trying to persuade each other (communicating) and neither will shift their position to arrive at an agreement. It gets so ugly that they decide to go to counselling to settle the matter. They show up at the counsellor’s office saying they have a communication problem that no matter how much they discuss things, especially Brussels Sprouts, they cannot understand one another and keep having the same fight over and over again. Each person secretly believes they are fine it is their unreasonable partner that has the problem and they really hope they can show the counsellor this so that the counsellor will pick them and get their partner to see the light.

They try to sell the counsellor that they have a communication problem (and subtly that the problem is with the other person). But halt, he counsellor has some bad news. She informs the couple they are each fine and that each person is absolutely right in how the see the Brussels Sprouts. In fact, what is going on is not a communication problem but a “we don’t PERCEIVE Brussels Sprouts the same way problem”and therefore cannot move forward because we believe that the person must feel or think about brussels sprouts the exact same way as me for us to solve this issue. THIS IS NOT THE PROBLEM! The problem is you don’t share the same view or want the same thing problem. The problem is that you wrongly believe you have to believe the same thing to choose the same solution and this is not true. The solution is related to getting a whole new frame work for building a common set of wants and values for your relationship. This requires a very different solution or approach.


Seems funny talking about Brussels Sprouts, now substitute out Brussels Sprouts and replace with sex, parenting, money or In-laws and it is the same thing, but less funny.


People take the problems they are having in their life or relationships and string together random bits of data and give it meaning to make sense of it. We do this so that we can formulate a problem in order that we can then come up with a solution.  People will often do this in isolation, not checking with their partner, child, parent or employee. So they create a problem and proceed to implement the solution based on how they, in isolation defined the problem.

Once they got the problem defined as they see it, the next step is to apply the solution. However, if how you defined the problem isn’t quite right, the solution you choose will NOT work. People often become so attached to how they defined the problem (often that problem is the other person as they've defined it) that they cannot see that there may be other possibilities. Instead they stick to their problem definition and keep applying the same fix over and over again. Then they start talking about the problem as they designed it, A LOT. To anyone that will listen.  If the problem is painful enough they finally seek counselling or psychiatric help.

A significant part of counselling is helping people to loosen the attachment they have to how they defined the problem and allow the counsellor to work with them to discover what the actual issue or issues is. For many people seeking individual counselling they are convinced that the problem lies in the past, perhaps their childhood. For parents they think their problem with their child lies in the child. For individuals seeking relationships, they swear the problem lies in their spouse. The reality is it is probably a small part of that and a large part in how you are constructing the problem. If you don't get the problem right the solutions won't work.

Rarely do people identify or diagnose their problem correctly. An effective professional counsellor through our training in human development, how the brain works, attachment, sex and strong theoretical orientation will help clients look at things different. Redefine the problem and most important figure out what the solution is. Counsellors allow people to see problems in a whole new way that opens up a lot of solutions.

So before you become convinced that you have the problem identified and you just need someone to tell you how to fix it, consider that you don’t have problem identified accurately, if you did you would probably be able to fix it on your own. Call us to learn how we can help you.

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