“What if…?” Use the Power of Imagination to Help Your Clients Get Unstuck

bubble-19329People who seek help from counseling, psychotherapy, or coaching often report feeling stuck. Sometimes, they don’t understand their own feelings and thoughts. Often, they don’t know what to do to be happier. Or they know what to do, but they feel unable to do it. In all cases, what they want is find a new path toward a more enjoyable and meaningful life. For this reason, regardless of the specific issues clients are dealing with, a significant amount of therapeutic work must focus on opening doors to greater awareness, flexibility, and connection with meaningful purposes.

One of the most powerful ways of helping clients get unstuck through natural conversations is to use “What if” questions, or what we call conditional framing in relational frame theory. These kinds of questions invite clients to explore alternative realities in which insightful experiences are contacted, and new responses to the current reality are revealed. Here are 3 examples of conditional questions that can shed a new light on your clients difficulties and make effective actions more available.

1: Dreaming

Perhaps the most effective and enjoyable way of using “What if” questions is to invite clients to imagine a virtual world in which everything is possible. In this world, it becomes possible to dream and hope, and this new attitude can then be transferred to the client’s actual life. “If you had a magic wand, in what ways would your life be different?” is a typical example of conditional questions that help clients identify goals. You can also ask, “If you won $100 000 000, what would you do with it?” as a way of exploring clients’ values and valued actions. Checkout this video to see a therapy demonstration.

2: Tracking

Conditional framing is at the core of our ability to analyze the causes and consequences of our actions (tracking). When clients are ambivalent about choices they need to make, asking them to explore the consequences of alternative options can help them get a clearer sense of what they really want. For example, you can ask, “What would happen if you did…?” Because significant consequences can be hidden, it is often necessary to conduct a thorough investigation through multiple if-then questions (e.g. “And what would happen in the long term if you did…?” “And what consequence would it have on your relationship/life at work/feelings if you did…?”). Checkout this video to learn more about tracking.

3: Method Acting.

In his recent book, CFT Made Simple, Russell Kolts presents techniques inspired from method acting that consist of inviting clients to imagine what they would do if they were being compassionate toward themselves. This kind of perspective taking move is very helpful to empower clients who have a hard time imagining that responding in a different way to their current problems will ever be possible. For example, you can ask, “If you were your best self, what would you do next?” or “If you were the person who inspires you most, how would you deal with this issue?

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