The Shape of a Question

One of the required courses during my first year in graduate school was an orientation to clinical work. The course met late on Friday afternoons. For the six of us in year one of the clinical psychology program, it was the only thing holding us back from the weekend.

“How was your week?” the professor would warmly begin. “Statistics is the worst,” one of us would say. And then, one by one, we would all chime in, griping about things we didn’t like. The tests were unfair. There was too much homework. The class always ran late. The negativity was contagious. I noticed that I would often leave for the day and head into the weekend in a grumpy mood. It took a while to clear my head of all of the frustrations.

A few weeks into the course, I noticed that the conversation had changed. School certainly wasn’t getting easier, but for some reason we were no longer spending time talking about the unfairness of having to calculate a one-way ANOVA. Instead, we were talking about the progress we made in our research, the satisfaction of studying hard and getting a good grade on an exam and the pride we felt in giving a well-received article review in a lab meeting.

The only thing that had changed was the professor’s question at the beginning of the class: “What’s gone well for you this week?”

The change in the question was subtle and maybe not even intentional. But, in a course designed to orient us to clinical work, I learned an important lesson in how much power we have in shaping the direction of a conversation.

Author: Alyssa Forcehimes, PhD

An expert in behavior change, substance use disorders and empathic communication, Dr. Alyssa Forcehimes serves as President of The Change Companies® and Train for Change Inc.® She lives in Arizona with her husband and two daughters.