As with so much else that has emerged from BRIEF over the past years ‘at your best’ can be traced back to Chris Iveson. The story, as I remember it, is that Chris was meeting with a woman who was facing something really tough the next day, a court hearing. She had been to court numerous times before and typically those court appearances did not go well for her. So Chris asked her whether she would like to spend some time preparing for the next day. The client accepted Chris’ offer, his proposal. Chris then invited her to imagine herself in court the next day, not wanting to be there and disagreeing with most of what was being said about her as indeed was normally the case, and yet as she sat there, ‘not wanting to be there and disagreeing with most of what people are saying about you, you find yourself at your best. How will you know that you are at your best?’ The client described. Chris asked questions in such a way that the description became more and more detailed and his questions invited the client to describe more than just the hearing itself and her role within it. His questions invited the client to describe the day that contained her ‘at your best in court’, in exactly the same way that Steve de Shazer subsequently wrote ‘building homes for solutions is what the solution-focused language game is designed to do’. This conversation was followed by the client’s best ever managing of the experience that she until then had found so difficult.
Since then we have used this same question in so many other situations where it is important to the client that he or she should perform well – job interviews, chairing meetings, attending case reviews, difficult conversations at work or in the family – and what we have learned is that just the description, just inviting the client to imagine, in detail of course, is normally enough. We do not have to ‘action plan’ if we can just trust the client and if we can just trust the process. The description by itself seems to do the job. Since the early days this question has found its way into so many of my Solution Focused conversations. As clients describe their preferred futures the question helps us to invite the client into a second layer of detail and description, moving beyond the facts of the day:
‘So how else will you know that your confidence is growing and you are liking yourself more?’
‘I’ll be going out more, I’ll be meeting new people, I’ll be talking’.
‘And as you’re going out more, meeting new people, talking, how will you know that you are at your best?’
‘I’ll be smiling, I’ll be interested, I’ll be looking forward to it.’
‘And as you’re smiling, interested, looking forward to it, at your best, what will other people be noticing about you that you’ll be pleased to have them notice?’
This second tier of distinction, of differentiation, that the ‘at your best’ question can serve to elicit seems to be useful for clients – it is not just that they are managing to ‘go out more’, but how they are when they manage to ‘go out more’.
The question has proved itself in my work. It is useful. It seems to have the potential to engage clients in talking in a way that seems to make a difference to them. But for me it is more than that. This tiny form of words encapsulates the optimism of the Solution Focused approach, the belief in our clients and also the challenge that we offer them. As we enquire about this ‘best’ we are assuming that there is a ‘best’ and that every client’s ‘best’ is different, is unique, is theirs and theirs alone. And even though the world is none of my business while I sit with any one particular client, the question resonates with my thought that the world needs all of us to give of our unique and individual ‘bests’ if we are to find a way forward through the tough times that we face, a way forward that will be inclusive of all of us.