Print Friendly, PDF & Email

The Unanswerable Question

When we are asked a question for which we don’t know the answer, most of us will guess. And our guess will be in terms that we understand and accept. If, for example, I ask how high is the Statue of Liberty in America – the guess may be well off, but it is likely to be in terms of feet. Asking the same question about the Eiffel Tower in Europe, the answer would probably be in meters [or metres]. Asking an aboriginal who only understood length in terms of arm size would get neither feet nor meters, but something else entirely. Our answers can only include something we know even if we only ‘know’ intuitively. Thus, asking unanswerable questions can help an individual begin to piece together an answer that is satisfactory to him or her.

Mental contexts are organized knowledge structures. This implies that they are internally consistent; the client tends to resist change when it is inconsistent with context, and resist more strongly the deeper the inconsistency; there is a tendency to complete partial input; and when one component changes, another may have to compensate. But such mental contexts are not totally stable. They adapt to informative input whenever possible. Thus, from a cognitive constructivist point of view, the learner and the learned may be compatible or incompatible. The incoming information may be accepted, rejected or considered and potentially adapted to fit the context [assimilation] or the context adapted [accommodation] to fit the novel information. This is why the construction of solutions or new narratives must closely resemble the old narrative history of what has and is occurring.

Solutions Focused Brief Counseling, for example, is centered around an unaswerable question they call the Miracle Question.

The Miracle Question has to be asked in the following way:

“I’d like to ask you a strange question…Suppose…that you go home tonight…and go to bed…and fall asleep as usual…and while you are sleeping, a miracle happens…and the miracle is that the problems that brought you in here are gone…and you don’t know because you are sleeping… What will you notice different tomorrow…that will tell you that there has been a miracle?”

Since no one can be sure what the answer would be – the client ‘makes up’ a response that fits his or her own mental context – which means that his or her ‘solution’ will be compatible with what s/he believes. This ‘solution’ enables the counselor to help build a goal, dream, desire toward which the client can be motivated to move.

One of the common consequences of a serious problem is that it clouds the future. We know that we don’t want the problem but we have lost sight of what it is we do want. Counselors can ask lots of questions about what life might be like if the problem were solved. As the answers to these questions gradually unfold both counselor and client begin to get a picture of where they should be heading. The clearer this becomes the greater the possibility of it beginning to happen.

We can find out a lot by asking unanswerable questions when searching for core beliefs. In LADDERING the format is to ask:

What if ____(this belief)______ were true?

What does it mean to me?’

Laddering is a way of analyzing your internal monologue statements by looking for more and more basic underlying assumptions and predictions until you arrive at statements of core belief. The technique is called laddering because it proceeds step by step. Laddering has only two rules. Rule number 1 is to question yourself with the above format, and Rule number 2 is don’t answer with a feeling. In the blank space the client writes a self-statement from his/her internal monologue. For example: “I am stupid!”. Then s/he writes the answer to the question. Having done that, have the client use the answer to fill in the blank and ask the question again. After using this sequence a few times, the client will arrive at a core belief. The answers must be confined to statements that express conclusions, beliefs or assumptions – not descriptions of feelings.

The easiest way to answer the above might be to state that I have a low IQ. However, that may not be true and it may also not feel good. Such explorations have the additional potential of helping the client become more balanced and rational.

There is, of course, ‘more than one way to skin a cat’, so in the Vertical Arrow we start by writing the negative thought and drawing an arrow down to the next item which is the answer to the question. Then ask the question again and draw an arrow down to the next answer. This will generate a series of negative thoughts that will lead to more clearly defined core beliefs.

In using the Vertical Arrow, instead of disputing negative thoughts, have the subject ask “If this thought were true, why would it be upsetting to me? “If I am stupid!”, what does this mean to me. This may be an even better method of getting to core beliefs since the answer is likely to be something like: I can’t ….

Understanding the details and ’cause’ of the problem is often not necessary to finding a solution. The important issues are how does the client want things to be different and what will it take to make it happen. Envisioning a clear and detailed picture of how things will be when things are better creates hope and expectation and makes solution possible. Focusing on the future (and how it will be better when things change) and on the establishment and elaboration of clear goals. Goals direct the counseling process and help it remain focused and brief (if we don’t know where we’re going, we don’t know when we’ve got there!). This also focuses on client strengths and resources, as a way of helping clients recognize how to use their resources to bring about changes.