Change: Principles of Problem Formation and Problem Resolution, Paul Watzlawick

A solution may itself be the problem.

Change is not only possible, but already seething within the problem situation.

Common-sense solutions are the most self-defeating and sometimes even the most destructive ones.

Two questions:

How does this undesirable situation persist?

What is required to change it?

Two types of change:

One that occurs within a given system which itself remains unchanged (first-order change); and one whose occurence changes the system itself (second-order change).

Change in connection with problem formation and problem resolution => second-order change.

Any aspect of reality derives its substance or concreteness from the existence of its opposite:

"Under Heaven all can see beauty only as beauty because there is ugliness. All can know good as good only because there is evil."

- Lao Tzu

One of the most common fallacies about change is the conclusion that if something is bad, its opposite must of necessity be good.

One cannot obtain full visual perception of one's own body, because the eyes, as the perceiving organs, are themselves part of the totality to be perceived, or, as a Zen master put it, "Life is a sword that wounds, but cannot wound itself; like an eye that sees, but cannot see itself." For the same reason, it is extremely difficult to arrive at a more than superficial understanding of one's own culture; one has to leave it and then be prepared for a shock when looking at it from the outside (from the vantage point of another culture), as all anthropologists and many Peace Corps volunteers know.

More and more people begin to "see" that more needs to be done. "More of the same" is their recipe for change, and this "solution" is the problem.

Three ways of mishandling a problem:

1. Action is necessary, but not taken.

2. Action is taken where it should not be.

3. Action is taken at the wrong level.

If a terrible simplificateur is someone who sees no problem where there is one, his philosophical antipode is the utopian who sees a solution where there is none.

It is the premise that things should be a certain way which is the problem and which requires change, and not the way things are. Without the utopian premise, the actuality of the situation might be quite bearable.

The behavioral effects of paradox: e.g. "Be spontaneous!"

=> the demand for behavior which by its very nature can only be spontaneous but cannot be spontaneous as a result of having been requested.

"I want you to study." <=> "I want you to want to study."

The myth that in order to solve a problem one first has to understand its why is so deeply embedded in scientific thinking that any attempt to deal with the problem only in terms of its present structure and consequences is considered the height of superficiality.

What becomes questionable is the question itself.

Very few behavioral or social changes are accompanied by insight into the vicisitudes of their genesis.

In deliberate intervention into human problems the most pragmatic approach is not the question WHY? but WHAT?, that is, what is being done here and now that serves to perpetuate the problem, and what can be done here and now to effect a change?

The causal significance of the past is only a fascinating but inaccurate myth. In this case, the only question is the pragmatic one:

//How can desirable change of present behavior be most efficiently produced?\\

The past has influence over the present only by way of a person's present interpretation of past experience.

It is precisely this unquestioned illusion that one HAS to make a choice between a and not-a, that there is no other way out of the dilemma and blind us to the solution which is available at all times, but which contradicts common sense. The formula of second-order change is "not a but also not not-a."

Not to choose is also a choice.

To reframe means to change the conceptual and/or emotional setting or viewpoint in relation to which a situation is experienced and to place it in another frame which fits the "facts" of the same concrete situation equally well or even better, and thereby changes its entire meaning.

What turns out to be changed as a result of reframing is the meaning attributed to the situation, and therefore its consequences, but not its concrete facts.

"It is not the things themselves which trouble us, but the opinions we that we have about these things." - Epictetus

The simplistic but widespread assumption that there is an objective reality somewhere "out there," and that sane people are more aware of it than crazy ones.

Real IS what a sufficiently large number of people have agreed to CALL real - except that this fact is usually forgotten; the agreed-upon definition is reified (made into a "thing") and is eventually experienced as that objective reality "out there" which apparently only a madman can fail to see.

Successful reframing needs to take into account the views, expectations, reasons, premises - in short, the conceptual framework - of those whose problems are to be changed. "Take what the patient is bringing to you."

Reframing presupposes that the therapist learn the PATIENT's language, and this can be done much more quickly and economically than the other way around. (psychotherapy)

~ similar to the philosophy and technique of judo: the opponent's thrust is not opposed by a counterthrust of at least the same force, but rather accepted and amplified by yieldin to and going with it.

Reframing does not DRAW THE ATTENTION to anything - does not produce insight - but TEACHES A DIFFERENT GAME, thereby making the old obsolete. The other "now sees something different and can no longer naïvely go on playing."

Spot wrong answers vs. Spot wrong questions

Four-step procedure to approach a problem:

1. Clear definition of the problem

2. Investigation of solutions attempted so far

3. Clear definition of the concrete change to be achieved/the goal

4. Formulation and implementation of a plan to produce change

In order to be solved, a problem first of all has to be a problem.


by forcing himself to sleep, he his placing himself in a "Be spontaneous!" paradox, and we suggested that his symptom therefore is best approached in a equally paradoxical way, namely forcing himself to stay awake.

=> prescribe the symptom: make him actively DO it; choose to do it, rather than FIGHT IT.


1. Clear definition of the problem: can't sleep

2. Investigation of solutions attempted so far: try hard to fall asleep

3. Clear definition of the concrete change to be achieved/the goal: fall asleep

4. Formulation and implementation of a plan to produce change: try hard to stay awake (Paradoxical Intention)

Start with terminology! One potential source of failure is inability to present the intervention in a "language" which makes sense to out client and which therefore makes him willing to accept and carry out the instruction.

Grown-ups treated as kids

1. Clear definition of the problem: parents tread adult kids as kids

2. Investigation of solutions attempted so far: by trying to gain a MINIMUM of dependence they get more and more ("more of the same" impasse)

3. Clear definition of the concrete change to be achieved/the goal: parents tell kids to take care of themselves

4. Formulation and implementation of a plan to produce change: try to gain a MAXIMUM of dependence on the parents help in the house and financially (paying the grocery bills, restaurant visits,...)

Making the Overt Covert

Advertising Instead of Concealing

Fear of Public Speaking

1. Clear definition of the problem: his tension will become obvious and he will be overwhelmed by it in front of the audience

2. Investigation of solutions attempted so far: tries to "pull himself together", to appear relaxed

3. Clear definition of the concrete change to be achieved/the goal: be able to speak publicly

4. Formulation and implementation of a plan to produce change: instead of trying to CONCEAL his symptom, ADVERTISE it

=> start your speech with the statement to the audience that you are extremely nervous and that your anxiety will probably overwhelm you

Advertisement is the technique of choice when concealment is the attempted solution.

The Great Effects of Small Causes

Therapeutic intervention must be applied to the "solution."

The simplest way of dealing with people is to tell them they are handsome.

"Why should you change?"

"Why should you possibly change?"

"Go slow!" is the paradoxical intervention of choice when praise and optimisim are thought to facilitate more progress.

"I don't like to waste my time on losers."


=> Problem is: can't start it

Solutions tried: try to start a masterpiece

Solution: Produce something mediocre

Another way: set a time limit.

The Devil's Pact

A maneuver which allows the therapist to deal with the dilemma by side-stepping it altogether and paradoxically meeting the business of risk head-on.

Change can be implemented effectively by focusing on minimal, concrete goals, going slowly, and proceeding step by step, rather than strongly promoting vast and vague targets with whose desirability nobody would take issue, but whose attainability is a different question altogether.