STRAGEDY: When Your Strategy Turns Into A Tragedy
by Jan Prince, NLP Author, Practitioner and Trainer
All of us operate out of unconscious patterns that “get us what we have always gotten.” When these patterns repeatedly harm our relationships or our careers we are unwittingly creating our own tragedies. If we can examine and experience these ineffective patterns in a detached way we have the opportunity to change them dramatically.
Working with a client one dayI accidentally labeled her pattern a STRAGEDY – we were both amused because it was so apt.
In this article I will give a brief overview of the STRAGEDY questioning process and an example of how you can use it with a client. In later articles I will go more deeply into the finer structures of the technique. Don’t let the simplicity of it fool you – it is amazingly impactful because it uncovers the STRAGEDY and turns it into a positive strategy.
I present it here in a format that is helpful for those of you who work as coaches or therapists helping clients change limiting patterns.
If you know NLP well, you will recognize that this is an amalgam of several basic NLP processes, although you do not need to know NLP well to use the process.
Overview of the Five Basic Steps of the STRAGEDY Questioning Process:
I. Identify the issue, circumstance or interaction in which the client is consistently unhappy with the results.
II. Ask what happens, who does/says what, and the order in which it unfolds and write down the steps and the order in which they happen.
III. Repeat each step back to the client, filling in any missing pieces and making sure that the context, behaviors, thoughts, feelings and motivations are included. This may take several iterations before all of the nuances are uncovered.
IV. Once complete, prompt the client to repeat his stragedy aloud. You may want to have him repeat it several times until it is evident he understands his complicity in getting the unfortunate results.
V. Help him identify which step he wants to change and brainstorm new ways to think, feel, or behave to create a new strategy that results in positive outcomes.
Following is an example of how this has worked.
In step IV behaviors, feelings, thoughts, beliefs and identity issues are noted by bracketing and bolding them. Throughout, the questions and comments from the therapist are in bold and Ellen’s are in standard text.
The therapist begins by asking her what the problem seems to be.
Step I. Identify the issue.
Ellen is a former accountant who decided to stay at home and raise their three boys. She was furious that her husband Don was always complaining about her housecleaning. She felt he was putting her down in front of their children. The ensuing arguments were causing a lot of tension and anger between them, and it was having a disastrous effect on the way she felt about herself.
STEP II: Ask what happens and the order in which it happens – write it down.
So that I can really understand this situation, tell me how it starts – what happens first?
Well, this morning is the perfect example: At the breakfast table Don said, “The kitchen is a mess.”
I got angry and defensive.
What makes you angry?
Because he is criticizing me again.
What makes you think he is criticizing you?
Because he expects me to do something about it.
How do you know that?
Because if something isn’t right, I have to fix it.
Because I’m responsible.
And you are responsible because?
I don’t know – I just have to be.
And if you aren’t responsible?
Then I am bad.
Step III. Reflect each step back to the client to make sure all the steps are uncovered.
Ok, let me back track on your strategy so far (therapist refers to his notes)
When your husband complains, you get defensive and angry because you think it is criticism, and that means you have to fix it, because if you don’t, you are bad. Is that right?
And if you are bad, then what?
I get anxious and lash out.
And then what happens?
Don gets mad and we have a fight.
And then I feel even worse!
So let me make sure I’ve got this right: When Don complains, you get defensive and angry because you think it is criticism and that means you have to fix it because you believe that if you don’t fix it you are bad. And the thought of being bad makes you anxious and you lash out, and then you feel bad.
At this point Ellen is looking a little amused.
IV. Once complete, prompt the client to repeat her stragedy out loud. You may want to have her repeat it several times until it is evident she understands her complicity in getting the unfortunate results.
Ok, why don’t I lead you through this and you repeat each step after I do.
1. When Don complains about something in the house (circumstance);
2. you feel defensive and angry (feeling)
3. because you think it is criticism (thought)
4. and that means you have to fix it (belief)
5. because if you don’t, you are bad (self-concept – identity)
6. and then you get anxious and lash out at Don, (behavior)
7. and then you feel worse. (resulting state).
Yes, that is exactly what happens!
So how is that working for you?
She is a little stunned by the simplicity and counter-productiveness of it.
The therapist helps her repeat each step several times (which has been explained as a stragedy – a strategy that has turned into a tragedy), helping her fill in any missing details. By the fourth iteration she is laughing — her perspective is shaken and ready for an intervention.
Step V. Help the client identify at what point in her STRAGEDY she could think or do something different, and brainstorm new behaviors that would create a more satisfactory result. (The earlier in the pattern, the better.)
Ellen, if we were to change one step of the STRAGEDY, what would it be?
She is a little stuck.
What would happen if you didn’t think of it as criticism, just a comment?
Well, I sure would feel different.
And if you didn’t take it as criticism, how might you respond instead?
I’d feel a little detached and maybe ask him what he thinks we can do to keep it in better order.
How would that be for him?
Well, he would be very shocked and I wouldn’t feel it was all my responsibility. Maybe we wouldn’t have an argument.
The therapist led her through a scenario using the new response to see how it would affect the rest of the interaction. She liked the results and decided to try it at home.
At the next session she reports that it is easy to catch herself early in the old pattern and changing the one step has allowed her to feel less defensive. Don has become more involved in household chores, and fewer fights have created a less stressful atmosphere.
Notice that a stragedy’s structure usually involves:
A: an event;
B. a reaction to the event (a feeling, thought, behavior);
C. guided by a belief or interpretation;
D. a behavior resulting from that interpretation;
E. a response to that causing the next “event”;
and on to the next iteration of A to E.
I have found that uncovering the details of the interaction (with the thoughts, feelings, and behaviors clearly identified), naming the pattern a STRAGEDY, and verbally repeating each step allows the client to see the fallacy in her reasoning and to detach from the old pattern. More often than not they find it amusing.
Rarely do I have to challenge a belief or interpretation – the process seems to cause clients to do it themselves! My assistance is needed to help them identify an intervention point, brainstorm specific reinterpretations or new ways to respond, “try out” the new responses, and predict how this will affect the rest of the interaction.
All of those with whom I have worked report that it becomes quite easy to catch themselves before they get beyond the first step or two of their old pattern and to do something else.
I have been amazed that something this simple can have such a powerful impact.
Next in Part 2 I will write about the importance of uncovering as many aspects of the pattern (using Dilts’ neurological levels structure) in order to make the intervention as effective as possible.
In the meantime, try it out and leave some feedback in the comments to let us know how it’s working for you!