We all know now that describing the preferred future in detail seems to be associated with successful work. Why that should be the case is less certain and many of us might have different theories to explain this observation. And thus from the early days of SFBT when exceptions were central there has been a shift and ‘best hopes’ and ‘preferred future’ have taken central stage. Indeed some of our friend and colleague Elliott Connie’s first sessions are largely constructed from those two elements of practice, very rarely supplemented by a scale question.
Given the centrality and the challenge to the practitioner to invite the client to describe the preferred future in increasing detail it is important to reflect on the process. However let’s look back for a moment before we look forward again. I think that we can say that the early developers and practitioners of SF fundamentally saw change happening outside of the session. In the session the practitioner sought to ask questions which would facilitate the construction of the ‘end-of-session-task’, and it was deemed to be the ‘task’ that brought about change. Within this frame the ‘miracle question’, Steve de Shazer and Insoo Kim Berg’s favoured technique for eliciting a description of the future, was conceptualised largely as a means to ‘set goals’. For example in his third book Clues (1988) Steve de Shazer writes ‘indirectly asking about goals, using the miracle sequence, consistently elicits descriptions of concrete and specific behaviors. We have found this way of quickly looking into the future to be a most effective frame for helping clients set goals and thus describe how they will know that the problem is solved . . . A description of the future without the complaint can be useful in assessing the salience of exceptions’ (pp 5 – 6).
In Steve’s view, at this time, the miracle description is secondary in the change process. It serves the function of facilitating the emergence of goals for the change process and it allows workers and clients to ‘assess’ the salience of exceptions. The conversation during the session is still secondary to the end-of-session-task. The task is the thing. The team behind the screen is predominantly, although not exclusively, there to help the interviewer to work out a task at the end of the session as Steve makes clear in Keys (1985) ‘. . . we developed a team approach using a regularly scheduled intra-session break to consult with each other about the design of the intervention, which one of us would deliver upon returning to the therapy room’ (p 18). This emphasis on task is hardly surprising since it follows in the footsteps and the tradition both of Milton Erikson’s work and that the brief therapy team at the MRI, both of whom hugely influenced Steve de Shazer.
However even as Steve wrote these words a different sort of thinking begins to enter into his writing, even if not quite so obviously into his practice. And that of course is ‘constructivism’; and with the emergence of this alternative way of thinking the conceptualisation of the change process radically changes. The task is no longer thing. The talking in the session is no longer secondary, serving the process of intervention design; the talking is now viewed as the thing. It is the talking that is now central. Change happens through the talking. Something goes on in the conversation itself, and describing the future is no longer (merely) a means to ‘set goals’ but a key part in the change process. Engaging our clients in describing the future itself seems to make a difference. And with this shift we see Solution Focused practitioners moving away from the very ‘broad-brush’ descriptions of Steve de Shazer and the early practitioners to much richer and more detailed descriptions.
So let’s return to our starting point, thinking about describing the preferred future in rich detail. Let’s imagine a client who comes in and when we ask ‘so what are your best hopes from our talking together’, responds by saying ‘I just want to be happier, to get on with my life again’. Of course this does not always happen in relation to our very first question, but this sort of response is not unusual during the process of conversation. At this point the SF practitioner now knows what the client wants and thus what to focus on and so may well respond by saying ‘so if you woke up tomorrow happier and getting on with your life again, how would you know?’ In answering this question, if left to their own devices, many clients will give us what we could call ‘broad brush’ responses ‘having a proper breakfast, going out more, answering the phone, looking for a job, playing with the children, reconnecting with old friends, going to the gym, talking with partner, being more interested in other people’ and on we go. But the Solution Focused practitioner typically does not leave clients to their own devices. We slow the conversation down inviting the client into the fine detail of the picture. ‘Having a proper breakfast’, the client’s first response, may invite 5 minutes of ‘fine detailing’.
The first step involves us creating the context
‘so what time will this be?’
‘who else will be there?’
‘will you be listening to the radio, watching the TV, reading the paper?’
‘what programme might you be listening to, TV programme might you be watching, which paper do you take?’
‘what might you have for breakfast on a happier and getting on with life day?’
And then we invite the client into the even finer detail:
‘what will (the others) notice about you as you have your proper breakfast on a happier and getting on with life day?’
‘what will be different about the way that you are having your breakfast on such a day?’
‘what will you notice about yourself as you sit there (are your sitting by the way?) having breakfast on such a day?’
‘what difference might starting your day with this sort of breakfast make to the rest of your day?’
Talking with a client some time ago about what she might notice different about her breakfast I ask what she might have for breakfast on a ‘good day’, the sort of day that she wants, and she answers:
‘coffee, just coffee’
‘and as you are having your coffee what would tell you , you know, today’s coffee is a little bit different – would you be sitting down, would you be rushing round the kitchen, would you be standing up?’
‘well I guess that on a good day I’d be out in the garden, looking at my garden, and it wouldn’t taste so bitter – it tastes so bitter at the moment my coffee – it just tastes bitter.’
‘so something other than that bitterness would be coming into it?’
Who would have thought, all those years ago, that our clients might be constructing distinctions in the taste of their morning coffee!
de Shazer, Steve (1985) Keys to Solution in Brief Therapy. New York: Norton.
de Shazer, Steve (1988) Clues: Investigating Solutions in Brief Therapy. New York: Norton.