Home PageBlogCase Report: The Right Way

By Richard Landis, Ph.D.

Estimated Reading Time: 4 minutes, 53 seconds

Jack was a 35-year-old accountant who was terrified of being wrong or criticized. He initially came in requesting help with his ten-year-old son, Nathan. Homework was a constant battle. Jack would show Nathan how to do it the right way and Nathan would want to do it his own way. Jack complained that if Nathan would do it the right way, the homework would be finished within half an hour. This would allow Jack to enjoy a quiet evening reading the beloved hardback mystery books he collected.

These right-way/my-way battles comprised most of Jack and Nathan’s interactions. Jack was the poster child for the controlling male and Nathan was desperately trying to have a relationship with his father. Jack said that his overly critical parents never taught him how to do it right. He was not going to make the same mistake with Nathan.

When I spoke to Jack’s wife, she said that Jack wanted to be a good father. He took the time to attend all the parent-teacher meetings. At those meetings, inevitably the teachers would tell Jack to back off. His micromanaging of Nathan was making his son a nervous wreck. Since Jack only redoubled his attempts at controlling when told he was handling Nathan wrong, I decided on a misdirecting task for Jack and his son.

A greatly abbreviated version of the ten-minute, excruciatingly detailed instructions were as follows:

“I want you to take Nathan to the public library and find where they sell the donated books. The two of you are to choose a hardback book that is approximately one inch thick and has the pages sewn in versus just glued. Here is an example. (I then pulled a book from my bookcase of professional books to use as an example.) When you get home, you are to show Nathan the right way that books are made. To prepare for this instruction, you can get a book from the library on self-publishing. These books always include a chapter on how books are made the right way. I want you to fold both covers back on the book that you and Nathan bought… (I demonstrated with the book I had chosen) … and … (I ripped the covers off to expose the binding glued to the supporting webbing that held the sections of pages to the spine) … show Nathan that the right way book covers are held together is just by the first-page papers glued on the front and back covers and the webbing on the spine.”

As anticipated, the sight of my ripping apart a sacred book threw Jack into an altered state. His eyes opened wide, his mouth opened in disbelief and his face went slack. It was an instant induction. I then gave the remainder of the instruction with ample embedding of curiosity, satisfaction, and the delight of not knowing. I gleefully proceeded to further rip the book apart, cutting the threads that connected the bundles of pages together. I told Jack the individual bundles of pages are called signatures. Each signature was originally printed on both sides of a single mother sheet. Each mother sheet holds 16, 32, or 64 pages which are later folded to produce the signature, the edges trimmed to separate the pages and sewn into the book. I then gave Jack the following assignment:

“Jack, I want you and your son to discover how many of your book’s pages fit on a single mother sheet. Then you are to discover together the original order of the pages on that mother sheet. There actually are several different orders of pages that will produce the same outcome. I am curious how many of them you will enjoy discovering together.”

When Jack returned the next week, he brought Nathan. Nathan was animated and excited to show me the mother sheet he and his father had created to show the order of the signature’s pages. Nathan had demonstrated the project for his class and his father had taken time off to attend that class. Jack said that the task was a lot harder than he thought it would be. From start to finish, it had taken them six hours working as a team on the project. Both of them reported they had a lot of fun doing it. Jack then told me that the family was going to drive to San Francisco to visit the Exploratorium. The Exploratorium is a hands-on museum of scientific and natural experiments. Jack read about it but, previous to our assignment did not see the value of discovering things if you could just read a book to get the right answer. Jack discovered that discovering with his son can be fun (and safe).

The rationale for this assignment presupposed that the function of Jack’s controlling behavior with Nathan was to avoid Nathan being criticized by others and in turn, to protect Jack from being criticized as an inadequate father. What both Nathan and Jack wanted from their fathers was acceptance. By exploring the world of curiosity together under the illusion of doing it the right way, Jack was able to step outside the domain of criticism. Destroying a book not only generated a confusion induction, but it also communicated that there was more than just one use for an item than its originally intended function. The right way could be predicated on its intended use rather than on some inherent preordained rule. Once I had Jack use the book as a teaching aid, he was free to separate the book as a symbol from the qualities of it as an object. As Korzybski said, the map is not the territory. In addition, this assignment was a behavioral metaphor for understanding that there are many roads to the same destination.


This excerpt has been extracted from Volume 23, Issue No. 2 of The Milton H. Erickson Foundation Newsletter.

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