What Would the Old You Have Done?

For a therapist, asking the perfect question at precisely the right time is an art form. I love being able to say to a client "In 25 years I have never asked this question before....." because it announces the possibility of a perspective that is truly unique to both of us.  I'm also fond of a few tried-and-true questions that have served me well for many years.  One is to ask "what would the old you have done?"

It's a lovely moment when a client describes handling a difficult situation with an adaptive new skill. Sometimes the person doesn't even realize the importance of a small change in behavior.  Part of my job is to recognize and amplify these moments into a deepened self-awareness of their significance.  As I've often said, big problems don't always need big solutions. A small change can have a life-changing effect if done in the right time, in the right way, for the right purpose, and for a long enough period of time.  I can't make these moments happen, but I can reinforce their worthiness when they occur.

Maybe a person goes jogging after a rough day rather than have a drink, or is supportive rather than critical of a partner who makes a mistake, or reaches out to a friend when upset rather than simmer in isolation.  If the action, whatever it is, represents a better way of handling a situation I may ask "What would the old you have done?" This is a beautiful question and I wish I could take credit for coming up with it. Asking "what would the old you have done?" underscores that the behavior in focus has historical consequence that is important enough to be distinguished. By its very nature it infers the presence of a "new you" and thus neatly distinguishes the legacy of the past from the possibility of the future.

I'll bet that out of 100 times asking this question I've had 99 answers that reinforce the recognition of significance. (There may have been one time a client said something like "it's the same me".) Virtually everybody accepts the offered possibility that certain events are capable of demarcating the "old" from the "new" self. The chance to step into a new and improved model of ourselves is powerfully compelling. "What would the old you have done" is therefore a profoundly hopeful question. 

Again, I don't always ask ready-made questions.  That would reduce my craft to a set of fornulas, and truly good psychotherapy cannot be restricted to a set of procedures.  If that was the case then a machine could work as effectively as a caring human being, and that will never appen in my lifetime. Many of the questions I'm most glad to have asked in my career emerge organically from the deep and wide-ranging conversations my clients and I often find ourselves experiencing. A really well-flowing therapeutic conversation can be a transformative experience capable of transporting both client and therapist to destinations of insight and wonder neither could have predicted.

But some questions are so tried-and-true that I keep them as handy as a master carpenter does with a set of special tools.  Sometime the best questions don't just help the person they are directed toward but can even have an effect on the person who is doing the asking.  Such is the case with me.  A question like "what would the old you have done" keeps me ever mindful that the person in front of me is a work in progress, always evolving in his or her capacity for growth and healing.  

What do you think about this idea?  Of course, I also have to ask with a smile, what would the old you have thought about it?


Bill Herring, LCSW, CSAT is an Atlanta-based psychotherapist and counselor who helps adults lead happier and more fulfilling lives.  He's also well-known for his work with couples, especially when those who are working to heal from the damage of serial cheating and other forms of chronic infidelity.