Christine Webber

The other day, I found myself recalling the period when I trained in cognitive behaviour therapy, and thinking about the tutor who was a big influence on me.

He was a quiet, thoughtful and wise individual.

And I remembered that often he would suggest I should use more precise language when I was tussling with how best to help a patient.

The word he always mentioned when giving such advice was “specificity”. Now, the first thing about specificity is that it’s a nightmare to say. And even he would frequently stumble over it. The trick is to focus on the syllable “fic” and then you have a chance of managing it.  

Despite that particular difficulty, I quickly grasped that what he was telling me was really useful not just in my psychotherapy training but in life as a whole.

And this week it occurred to me that it’s something you might find helpful, because so often when we struggle with problems, or with goals we never seem to achieve, it’s because we’re tackling them in too vague a way. 

Let me give you some examples.

I once had a patient who felt her marriage was no longer very romantic and that she and her husband were losing the closeness they had once enjoyed.

Most of all, she said, she wished he was more loving towards her and that she felt more appreciated. She had tried telling him this, but he couldn’t seem to grasp what she wanted, and what to do about it.   

So, we worked on turning her wishes into something more specific that would be more easily understood, and I asked her to explain to me, in basic terms, something he could do that would please her and help her feel more special and loved.  

She described how she always got home from work before her spouse, and how she was generally putting the children to bed when he returned from his office.

She said he usually shouted, “I’m home” then headed for the kitchen where he would open the fridge and grab a cold beer before throwing himself on the sofa in the sitting room and switching on the TV.  

She found this routine upsetting because though she knew he was tired and deserved a treat, she was exhausted herself and felt ignored.  

We came up with a plan which was that she would ask him to come and see her when he arrived home, and give her and the kids a hug, and spend a few minutes discussing their respective days before going to get his beer.

So, she went home from our session and they chatted, and she outlined, specifically, what she would like from him, and what that would mean to her.

He immediately said: “Of course. I can do that.” Then he told her he loved her and gave her a cuddle.  

From that moment, everything began to go better, and they learned to talk in a more specific way and to be open and clear about what each of them wanted and needed.

This was a couple who loved each other but the pace of their lives was getting in the way of romance and communication. However, once they deployed some specificity, their relationship improved.

And specificity doesn’t just work in our dealings with loved ones, it can also help the goals that we have. We often say something like: “I really want to lose a bit of weight.” Or: “I should be getting more exercise.”’  And what happens? Usually, not a lot.

In such situations we need to make our goals more specific, and the way to do it is to remember the acronym SMART. A SMART goal is one which is Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and Time-limited.  

So, a good goal for diet and weight would be: “I plan to lose half a stone in the next two months”.

This is a SMART goal because you’re being specific and measurable about what you want to lose, you believe it’s achievable and realistic (assuming you stick to your plan) and you are giving yourself an appropriate time limit. This approach is much more likely to work than simply saying “I wish I could lose some weight”.

Try it with exercise too. Or with a schedule for mastering something if you are doing exams, or even if you are learning lines for your AmDram club or music for the choir you go to.  

Finally, if you are madly busy and weighed down with tasks, and find organising your day difficult, bring some specificity to that too. Instead of writing an ordinary “to do” list, write one that has a start-time allocated to every separate item you need to tackle.

This precision is much more efficient and effective – and more likely to succeed – than a list without a time scale.   

Specificity is so often the key to sorting life’s problems. If only it were easier to say!