Book review — Change: Principles of Problem Formation and Problem Resolution

In preparation for clinical exams, I’m starting the process of reading one theory-related book per month while listening to theory review lectures by Diane Gehart in her MFT exam prep course.

I used this prep course to help me pass my grad school exam and I revisited it again to pass the MFT law and ethics exam earlier this year. The test taking strategies alone were a huge game changer for me so I’m building my entire study plan by following her guidance.

I highly recommend the course if you’re an AMFT. I’ve still got about 1200 more hours to go before I can qualify to take the clinical exam, so I have at least a year to study.

First up on my reading list is Change: Principles of Problem Formation and Problem Resolution.

Book Synopsis

Written by Paul Watzlawick, John Weakland and Richard Fisch, Change is organized into three parts.

Part 1 introduces the underlying theory of persistence and change from both a theoretical and practical perspective.

Part 2 explores four main constructs from which many problems may be formed.

Part 3 offers suggestions on how to resolve such problems to help facilitate change within the systems that may perpetuate the problem without intervention.

Personal Reflection

Where do I even begin? I can’t imagine anyone reading this book for fun because it definitely does not read as straight forward as the title and table of contents would suggest.

It reads pretty scientific, but I was still able to grasp the core concepts despite their use of mathematical logic to describe their theory of change.

To help organize my own brain, I’m going to reflect on the book in parts rather than as a whole.

Part 1 – Persistence and Change

The authors posit that most theories of persistence and change operate independent of each other while few consider their complementary relationship to each other.

Using group theory as a framework for thinking about change within a system in conjunction with the theory of logical types as a framework for thinking about people within a system relate to each other, Watzlawick, Weakland and Fisch propose that two different types of changes can occur — one that occurs within the system (or first order change) and one that changes the system itself (or second order change). 

This is about all I got from the first chapter of the book. I could have done without reading the second chapter which merely provided examples to help concretize the abstract.

As I was reading the first chapter, I already had concrete examples formulating in my head from past experiences. It was interesting to reflect on those experiences from a different perspective.

Part 2 – Problem Formation

This part of the book identified four ways people tend to mishandle their problems in such a way that only seems to perpetuate the problem.

Some problems occur as a result of an attempted solution to a problem thereby making the problem even worse or becoming even more of a problem than the original problem.

This reminded me of a situation involving a dear friend whose partner suffered from a psychotic break during the pandemic. All attempts to keep their person safe resulted in the person suffering even more until the friend finally decided to do they very thing he didn’t want to do, which he finally did before the situation was eventually resolved with proper treatment.

Another way problems can occur is to pretend like the problem doesn’t exist which only serves to compound the problem; to admit their is a problem could potentially challenge one’s sense of identity in relation to the problem, but when there’s no resolution, you end up getting more of the same.

One type of problem that really stood out to me was the Utopia syndrome because of how prevalent it seems to be in a capitalist society. Marketers prey on the gap between actuality and potentially to sell solutions that promise to fill that gap.

In my own quest for financial freedom, I can’t tell you how many times I have been sold that utopian ideal only to be left in greater debt for a solution that didn’t work out as well as I had hoped. A solution to solve debt resulting in even greater debt. Go figure. The lesson I’m learning is that I’m attempting first-order change where only second-order change can lead to the solutions I seek.

The last type of problem is the reason why many people seek therapy—paradoxes.

Paradoxical problems usually present themselves as inner conflicts, like wanting to lose weight when all you think about is food or like wanting to feel motivated when you’re body is telling you to rest.

Naturally, it’s going to be challenging losing weight or increasing your motivation when you’re giving yourself mixed messages.

Part 3 – Problem Resolution

This part of the book describes first-order change as the common sense approach to address presumed causes of a problem while second-order change focuses on the here and now.

Watzlawick, Weakland and Fisch suggest that ideal solutions usually show up as weird and unexpected. This makes sense to me because you’re essentially creating a pattern interrupt to stop behaviors that perpetuate the problem.

Another way Watzlawick, Weakland and Fisch suggest for solving problems is through reframing. This reminds me of a quote about how you can’t solve a problem from the same consciousness that created it. Sometimes the problem isn’t the problem itself but rather the lens from which we view the problem. Swap out the lens and there might mot even be a problem or at the very least, it doesn’t affect you as much.

Watzlawick, Weakland and Fisch also offer a 4-step framework for solving problems. Step 1) define the problem concretely; Step 2) evaluate solutions attempted thus far; 3) define the desire change in concrete terms; and 4) develop a plan to implement the desired change. Seems simple enough in theory. If the plan doesn’t work, then you repeat the steps by clarifying the problem, redefining the desired change if necessary and executing a new plan of action.

For a deeper dive in to different approaches to solving problem, you’ll have to read the book yourself to extract your own takeaways.

Key Takeaways

While this isn’t necessarily a book I’d read for fun, I don’t regret it one bit.

I think my biggest take away from this book was the distinction between first-order and second-order change.

My second biggest takeaway is the notion of creating pattern interrupts to facilitate change.

Problems can have a hypnotic effect on people. Weird and unexpected “solutions” can help break the spell such problems have over you allowing you to effectively problem solve.

Change is hard for most people. Embracing the weird and nonsensical can help make it easier.

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