Getting Unstuck – The Magic of Exceptions

Often times when people come to speak with a counsellor it is because they are stuck. They have tried everything they can think of to free themselves from a situation, but to no avail. Be it difficulties with co-workers or a challenging boss, a lack of motivation in school, too much yelling at home at their children, no longer feeling that they are on the same page with their partner, or any of a countless list of situations that challenge or that get us bogged down in the mud from time to time.

There are many ways that counsellors support their clients to get “unstuck”, and one of my favourites is to help my clients search for exceptions. Insoo Kim Berg and Steve De Shazer, the original developers of Solution Focussed Brief Therapy, were masters of this. Their model was based on analyzing and observing what actually worked, what helped move clients forward. In this case, the premise is simple – no situation occurs 100% of the time – at its 100% worst. There are always exceptions when the situation doesn’t occur, or occurs to a lesser magnitude.

I may ask my client to think about the following: Things may be difficult at work but what are the glimmers when interactions go well? Think of a time when a school assignment was completed on time, or “less late”? What about the rare family dinner when everyone spoke pleasantly up until dessert time? On what was going on when you enjoyed a fleeting moment of connection with your partner?

Better… Even. Just. A. Little. Bit.

Once we’ve identified an exception, then we take a magnifying glass to examine it. What was going on at the time? How did it happen? What was going on just before and just after? And most importantly, what did they do to help make this exception occur? Once we’ve painted a picture of a time when the problem didn’t occur or even simply to a lesser extent, we talk about how they can help make it happen again. How they can expand the influence of this exception so it can start to spread. It’s not about a situation becoming perfect right away, but seeing it in a different light and finding hope in the possibility of change.

The beauty of exceptions is that the client comes up with a list of examples and situations that they have lived. Recognizing that things can get better isn’t about memorizing a formula for success (unless the exception involved studying for a science exam!), but is something within. This process is all about building on and developing the inherent strengths and competencies that each and every person brings with them when they walk in the door. Sometimes they just need to shake the mud off first.

Written by:
Philip Meehan

SACAC Counsellor