Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Stories and learning

Threads:                        Context, Learning, Mistakes, Stories
                                     (these threads are interdependent; they become a weave)
Relevant recent posts:     2/14/2011     Unconscious Learning
                                     1/25/2011     Learning and mistakes

 The universe is not made of atoms. It is made of stories.
— Muriel Rukeyser (1913 – 1980)

He was an Ericksonian hypnotherapist. They’re different. He told me stories that seemed to get inside me and mean something.
          — client, describing her experience of hypnosis

Stories can be wonderful and supportive teaching metaphors. With fairytale content that completely engages a young child, “Goldilocks and the Three Bears” evokes so much: Exploring out in The World; encountering a whole series of “too big / too small / and just right” circumstances—metaphors for choosing the right-sized limits and boundaries that support comfort and well-being; or perhaps the young listener is drawn to the building tension of knowing Papa, Mama, and Baby Bear will soon return home and discover Goldilocks!

We flesh out stories with our own experience
Although the parent may tire of reading the same bedtime story ten times in a row, the listening child fleshes out the words with his or her imagination… and like a waking dream, explores some experience internally that may change from one night to the next.

Stories teach while evoking what we already know
This ability—for stories to evoke and connect with personal experiences within each of us—does not go away as we grow older. And, like dreams, stories can function as metaphors—the language of the unconscious. Without missing a beat, your unconscious can take in a story about the gradual process of learning to walk—or becoming a non-smoker—and use it as support for other, more relevant areas of learning-in-progress.

Many therapists use stories and metaphors in support of their clients’ learning
The excerpt below is from Sidney Rosen’s introduction to “My Voice will go with you: The teaching tales of Milton H. Erickson." The aging Erickson describes how he taught therapists: 

“I had to spend too much time on one [therapist]. I would rather teach a lot of people how to think, how to handle problems. I have dozens and dozens of letters saying, ‘You have completely changed my way of treating patients.’ I get a lot of [therapists], but I see them less. I see more [therapists] and I see them for shorter times.”

[Rosen] questioned, “And this is the result of…?”

He answered, “Their coming here and letting me tell them stories. Then they go home and alter their practice.”

Obviously “coming here and letting me tell them stories” involved expectations and communications on many levels. For example, anyone who spent time with Erickson was likely to experience various levels of hypnotic trance. With positive expectations, in a trance, we are most open to messages and influences transmitted by Erickson’s stories….
In telling stories, Erickson was, of course, following an ancient tradition. Since time immemorial, stories have been used as a way of transmitting cultural values, ethics, and morality…” 
…and in the context of therapy—or this blog—as support for personal growth.

The stories, quotes, vignettes, and questions below invite your conscious and unconscious mind to connect with what you already know about learning… in support of what you are learning now that matters in your life.

The greatest glory is not in never failing, but in rising up every time we fall.
Each of us has experience of this glory: The first time you fell down while learning to walk, did you say, “I’m never gonna do that again”?

Becoming a non-smoker: A story of gradual learning
Even when you consciously have the experience of failing, you are likely involved in learning what will allow you to succeed.

When I start working with someone who wants to become a non-smoker, I ask if they have ever quit smoking before. Almost everyone says no. Then when I ask, “Even for a few days, or a few hours?” they tell me, “I tried, but I can’t quit. I didn’t smoke for 8 months once, but I started up again. And a couple of times I quit for two or three months. But I always started back up. So, no, I never actually quit.”

I’m amazed! They did quit! But because they started up again, they write off their accomplishments as evidence that they didn’t and they can’t quit—rather than see it as part of the process of learning what they need to learn in order to sustainably become a non-smoker. I frame my response:  

You know something about how to stop smoking. You know something about maintaining being a non-smoker—at least for several months. You know something about the circumstances under which you start smoking. So, there’s already a lot to build on here—much more than if you’d never gone through several cycles of quitting and starting—don’t you think? 
A big national study showed that people who are motivated to quit smoking stop and start again an average of six times before quitting for good. If you didn’t know this, you might lose confidence in your own ability to be a non-smoker after several cycles of stopping only to start again.
What learning is taking place each time you quit… and then start again?… that supports you in moving closer and closer to sustainably being a nonsmoker?
It’s not just your head; your body learns, too
Part of becoming a non-smoker is allowing your body’s chemistry, which had included periodic hits of nicotine and other stuff, to come to a new equilibrium. And that process of your body finding a new balance that doesn’t include cigarette smoke takes time… and it is definitely a learning… just like when you were learning to walk, your body feels out of balance, out of whack… until you learn this new balance that doesn’t include smoking. 

What supports you in allowing yourself the time and experience to learn to do something you really want that you don’t yet know how to do? 
Learning to be in satisfying relationship takes time
Learning like this is something nobody else—no matter how well intentioned they are—can do for you. Learning to form a relationship, learning what cues to use—and not use—to decide whether or not you want to continue to explore a new relationship, learning how to communicate with another human being, learning how to include your differences, learning how to have productive fights by which the relationship grows… all of this takes time and learning, learning, learning.

Jiddu Krishnamurti (1895 – 1986, see References, below) was a spiritual teacher with a large following. After a public talk, a member of the audience asked, “How can we do good in the world?” After a pause Krishnamurti responded, “Begin by having one right relationship.”

I want to acknowledge that it may be easy at first glance to be attracted to another human being, yet it is a rich, complex, and gradual learning to be in a satisfying long-term relationship.

About such learning…
Of course being in relationship (with our parents, our friends, our lover, our children, our colleagues) isn’t the only learning we undertake (consciously or unconsciously) as an adult. About such learning, Mr. (Fred) Rogers (see References, below)—a wonderful and profound teacher—offers this: 

When I was young (about eight or ten years old), I was trying to learn so many things all at once, things like the piano and organ and algebra and cooking and typing, and I even started to take clarinet lessons. But I just didn’t practice the clarinet, so I didn’t learn. I think I wanted to learn by magic. I think that I had the idea that if I got the clarinet I would somehow know how to play it. But magic doesn’t work with learning, not with anything worthwhile.
I want it now! Accomplishing slowly what you want quickly
Often there’s a part of you that knows what you want, and wants it fast. Then there’s another part that knows how to take the time to accomplish what is wanted… which might be more slowly than the fast part wants it to go. Conflict. Here’s a question: 

What will the part of you that wants what you want—faster than the time it takes you to accomplish it—do... while the part of you that will accomplish what you want takes the time it needs to accomplish it? 
The part that wants what you want (fast!) and the part that knows how to accomplish what you want (more slowly)… both parts share a common interest; how will they collaborate and support each other? How will you let your unconscious assist you with solving this?

More about Krishnamurti

Fred Rogers (2003). “The World According to Mister Rogers (Important things to Remember).” Family Communications, Inc. Hyperion, 77 West 66th Street, New York, NY 10023. (p. 119)

Sidney Rosen (ed.) (1991). "My voice will go with you: The teaching tales of Milton H. Erickson." W. W. Norton & Company, 500 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY 10110.
Even if you aren’t interested in therapy, this is a warm fuzzy bedtime read, yet clinically relevant. The stories support fundamental learnings about motivation, overcoming habitual limitations, changing the unconscious mind, taking charge of your life, and more.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Unconscious learning

Learning without knowing you are learning

Thread:                          Context, Learning
Relevant recent posts:     2/3/2011 Mistake of the week
                                     1/5/2011 We are always in a context

"You see, we don’t know what our goals are. We learn our goals only in the process of getting there… You don’t know what the baby is going to become. Therefore, you wait and take good care of it until it becomes what it will."
               — Milton H. Erickson (1979, see References, below)

Now, I will ask you the first question I have asked everyone who has participated in the hypnotherapy groups I have facilitated: 
Would you be willing to learn something useful that you may not know you have learned, nor how you have learned it? 
Learning: to control our bladder and bowels; to see something, reach for it, and grab it; to use a spoon, drink from a glass; to skip; to make sounds, to speak; to control a pencil, to play catch…. To learn about being in relationship: how to play with others, work on a project with others, provide value to others and get paid for it, form and maintain satisfying relationships, care for one’s self and others, raise children....

I invite you to consider that the much of what you learn—that forms the core competencies and understandings upon which you build your life—occurs without your conscious direction of the process. Furthermore, the learning occurs without requiring that you have conscious awareness of having learned anything. Yet, you still benefit from what you have learned! And this is normal for how we learn much of what we learn! 

It is this natural unself-conscious / unconscious learning which hypnotherapy engages. 
I’ll illustrate this kind of learning with a story of how we each come to walk.

We learn to stand on our two feet from the head down
There was a time when you didn’t know how to lift your head. When Mother entrusted someone to hold you, she’d say, “Be sure to support the baby’s head.”

Learning to balance your head between your shoulders
Gradually, you learned to turn your head, lift it and lower it. If someone held you under your arms, you could hold your head upright. You learned to balance your head between your shoulders.

This is an important milestone in learning to walk: The means by which you sense your balance is located in your inner ear, so you first need to balance your head between your shoulders in order to have a stable reference for learning to balance the rest of you. Of course you didn’t consciously decide to learn to hold your head up; you simply learned it naturally when you—your muscles, nervous system, and coordination—were ready.

Learning to balance from the waist up; learning to stay balanced while moving
Once you could reliably balance your head between your shoulders, then you naturally began learning to sit up. Then when you could reliably keep your own balance from the waist up, you explored keeping your balance while moving—either crawling on all fours or scooting around on your butt. 

None of this happened because you woke up in the morning and said to yourself, “I gotta put in my 6 hours today in learning how to walk.” You were not motivated by some idea of what you could do—climb a mountain, run, shop at a supermarket without being carried or wheeled around in the cart—once you had walking down. Toddlers don’t think that way. They are engaged fully in the unfolding of their own experience, exploring themselves and their world. And in the course of that unfolding and exploring, an immense amount of learning takes place, including learning to walk. 
Learning to stand on your hind legs
When you were ready—on average at about 10 to 15 months old, you naturally find something the right height to grab with your hands and begin exploring standing on your hind legs. You teeter a lot, and you fall down a lot.

Being out of balance is how you learn a new balance
That’s how you learn a new balance… by being out of balance and learning to make adjustments to stay up. Sometimes you forget to keep sufficient muscle tension around your knees… those muscles relax, your legs bend… and down you go. Sometimes, as you teeter, one foot comes off the ground, and then comes down again as you catch your balance. Your first step? It’s hard to tell, the process is all so gradual. But it happens.

Although others may help, it is your learning
You accomplished this complex task of learning to walk. Parents may be supportive and appreciative of Baby learning to walk, but they didn’t learn it for you. It was your learning… and you learned it at the pace and in the manner that was right for you… and you learned it so well you don’t even think about it. Now, you just do it.

Characteristics of unconscious learning
1)    Like all learning, it is gradual. Learning to walk, to talk, to understand language, to read, to write… each is too complex to learn all at once. Such learning is an incremental, time- and attention-consuming process.

2)    We do not consciously set a goal for what we will learn. From the conscious mind’s point of view, “it just happens.”

3)    We are not consciously aware that we are learning anything even when we are in the process of learning it.

When we learn something in this way, it is not a notable event. We don’t know that we are learning, or have learned, or what we’ve learned. Like finally learning to walk, we just use it. 

As adults, we still have the ability to learn this way; we don’t out grow it
Even as an adult, we continue to learn from our experiences, both good and bad—about our work, relationships, parenting,… and more. We can’t help but learn—any more than a toddler can help but learn to walk or talk. We typically don’t turn the bits and pieces of our life experience into a conscious story about, say, “how I learned to hold my own stance and set boundaries”—any more than we built a detailed story about how we learned to walk. We just do it. 
"My learning over the years was that I tried to direct… too much. It took a long time to let things develop and make use of things as they developed."

"Life isn’t something you can give an answer to today. You should enjoy the process of waiting, the process of becoming what you are. There is nothing more delightful than planting flower seeds and not knowing what kind of flowers are going to come up."

              — Milton H. Erickson (both quotes, 1979, see References, below)

Milton H. Erickson (1901 - 1980): These quotes are from a set of posters published by Milton H. Erickson Foundation, 3606 North 24th Street, Phoenix, Arizona 85016.

Erickson was the primary teacher of my mentors, Nancy Winston and Paul Lounsbury.

Milton H. Erickson's experimental and therapeutic explorations with the hypnotic modality span more than 50 years. His successful rejuvenation of the entire field may be attributed to his development of the non-authoritarian, indirect approaches to suggestion wherein subjects learn how to experience hypnotic phenomena and how to utilize their own potentials to solve problems in their own way.

Erickson is generally acknowledged to have been the world's leading practitioner of medical hypnosis. His writings on hypnosis have been a primary source for several generations of clinicians on techniques of inducing trance, experimental work exploring the possibilities and limits of the hypnotic experience and investigations of the nature of the relationship between hypnotist and subject.

Erickson was the founder of the American Society of Clinical Hypnosis and founding editor of both the American Journal of Clinical Hypnosis and The International Journal of Clinical and Experimental Hypnosis.

(Excerpted and adapted from Ernest Rossi's preface to “The Collected Papers of Milton H. Erickson on Hypnosis” (1980) Irvington Publisherts, Inc., NY)


youtube video about Milton Erickson
More about Milton Erickson
Selected bibliography about Ericksonian hypnotherapy

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Mistake of the week

 ...or "What mistake did I make this week that provided me the biggest opportunity for learning?"

Thread:                         Learning, Mistakes
Relevant recent posts:   1/25/2011 "Learning and mistakes"

“A person who never made a mistake never tried anything new.”
         —Albert Einstein, Nobel laureate physicist

“An expert is a man who has made all the mistakes which can be made in a very narrow field.”
         —Niels Bohr, Nobel laureate physicist

A poster of this picture hung on the wall of the physics lab I worked in as a student at the University of Rochester. It reminded us: "Don't take it too seriously."

I blew it!
I remember early in my practice of hypnotherapy, meeting with my mentor, Nancy Winston (see Reference, below), for supervision (a process of learning by reviewing my cases). I was distraught and told her that I’d blown it! After a particular session I realized I had misunderstood something my client said. As a result, I now believed I had responded in a way that inadvertently undermined our rapport and his already precarious feelings of self-worth. Instead of support, or at least of doing no harm, I thought I had caused damage.

Perhaps you think you have to know something before learning it

Here's my recollection of my interaction with Nancy: Her first response was a little laugh and then, “You’re already learning a lot from this client,” to which I said, “It doesn’t feel that way.” She responded,
“Sounds like you think the way to learn something you don’t yet know is to already know it. How do you allow yourself the time, space, and experience to learn something new, something you don’t yet know?”
What had I already learned in order to know I'd "blown it"?
She looked at me while what she said sank in. Then she had me describe in detail how I knew I had “blown it:” 
“When did you know you had blown it?”

“What did you know that allowed you to make that assessment?”

“From your perspective now, what can you see now that happened during that session that would have allowed it to play out differently?” 
Now, how will you use what you've learned?
Nancy brought a levity to our exploration that invited me out of the distress I felt about having made a mistake. Then she said, 
“So, you really have learned a lot from this experience. Now, whether you like what you did or not, let’s talk about how you can make use of it for the client’s benefit…” 
…which we did. I settled down. 

Mistakes are opportunities forand evidence oflearning
At the end of the supervision session she said,  
“Mistakes are part of learning. You don’t know you’ve made a mistake until afterward, when you already have a new perspective from which you would do it differently. At that point, you’ve already learned something new. You might find it useful to ask yourself:

'What mistake have I made this week that provided me the biggest opportunity for learning?' ” 
She was serious! For the next few weeks, we started our supervision sessions with this question.

It was a great way for me to learn what was relevant for me, because the starting point was always something I was just beginning to recognize and figure out. Plus, without ever saying so, Nancy helped me separate out what was useful from what was no longer useful with respect to my attitudes towards learning.  Instead of the familiar anxiousness of having to get right what I didn’t yet know how to do, there was room and support for something new to emerge.

Please, your comments are welcome…
In what ways had you learned to recognize when you were failing and when you were succeeding?

In what other ways can you now understand what you had called your successes and failures… in a way that now promotes what you want, your interests, and your well-being?

Nancy Winston and Paul Lounsbury co-founded and co-facilitate the Advanced Training Group in Psychotherapy Cybernetics. I joined in 1997. We met four to five times a year, three days each time, for more than a decade. Group influences include the work of Milton Erickson, Charlotte Selver, Gregory Bateson, the Milan Family Systems Group, and others. Within the crucible of this group of clinicians we continually discover and experience how to participate in therapeutic hypnotic conversation. I consider this group my primary teacher and Nancy and Paul my mentors.