Present Tense

There’s this thing I do when talking to clients about their work histories. I tend to ask questions in the present tense.

Who do you report to? How is the company structured? What level of authority do you have? Who’s on your team?

Sometimes the client will stop me and remind me that they don’t work there anymore. I can’t blame them for that, but there’s something else at work here.

One of the most powerful therapeutic techniques involves asking clients to put themselves in the center of a pivotal past event but in the present tense. It feels kind of weird to do but it works wonders. It forces the person to be in that space instead of thinking about being in that space.

I’m sure we’d all agree there is a big difference between telling a friend about how you love your partner versus telling that partner directly. Picture an estranged spouse on the Dr. Phil show pouring their heart out to the TV therapist who then yells at them in his incredulous southern drawl, “Don’t tayell me, tayell heeyim!” and then that person turns to their partner and can’t even get through the first few words with crying hysterically.

Look at wedding vows: brides and grooms run through their lines a hundred times without getting emotional but once they’re on that stage, in the moment, speaking to the object of their affection… well, that’s when we start taking pictures.

Context and time matters.

Speaking in the present tense invites us to go back in time, to actually see our colleagues, the rickety old office furniture, to remember the smells, the rumors, the cubicle wall that was always falling down, the pictures we pinned up on our monitor. Fully immersed, we recall more.

As someone tasked daily with making people recall things that happened years ago, I can tell you it works.

Once we get into our Way-Back machine, pick a date, land in that time, and get out of the vehicle, we’re well on our way to remembering things we forgot and changing our perspective of the past, which, you better believe, changes the course of time.