That was never de Shazer’s title for it. We were sitting in the NHS clinic in London that we worked in back then in May 1990, having a discussion with Steve de Shazer and Insoo Kim Berg about a case that Insoo had just supervised me working with: a young single mother (with so-called mental health issues) who couldn’t decide what to do about her baby, whether to keep the child, or to put her up for adoption. I had done the usual ‘if you did this, what then?’ and ‘if you did that, what then?’ routine and felt as stuck as the social workers were feeling. (Actually, it was a lot worse even than that. Insoo had urged me to use the Miracle Question and after I did so, she told me I had done it incorrectly, which put me off doing it again for at least a year.) de Shazer listened and then said, ‘what about the third option?’ What third option, Steve? ‘There’s always a third option!’ We asked him how he’d go about that and he said ‘I’d ask her to imagine that one day in the near future she has taken a train from London to, er, say Aberdeen, and then ask her to tell me about what she would do after leaving the train in Aberdeen’. I asked him if he would specify whether she had her daughter with her or not, and he said he wouldn’t: he’d deliberately leave it open and she could fill in the details.
I tried this out in the next session (Insoo mercifully was back in the States by then). The client didn’t mention her daughter as being with her in Aberdeen; she described herself walking on the beach, feeling alone in the world. Within a few days she announced to the social workers that she had decided to keep her baby.
Thereafter, we called the technique ‘The Aberdeen Option’.
I’ve used this technique in a variety of places since. For example, I had a client who couldn’t make up her mind where to live – should she stay here in London or return to her homeland Mexico? Looking at the two options produced the usual stalemate and then I said ‘suppose you got on a plane and flew to, oh, I don’t know, let’s say Spain, what then?’ To my amazement she said that she had indeed considered going to live in Madrid!
de Shazer only wrote in an indirect way about this technique. The second chapter of his 1988 book Clues is taken up with transcript and commentary of an initial session where a client can’t make a decision about her husband. He urges the client to explore her ‘options’ and starts chasing more and more: what’s the 4th? What’s the 5th? It’s clear that the rationale is to loosen up the client’s thinking or creativity, which is what the ‘Aberdeen’ idea, I take it, is all about, and he clarifies this with this comment:
Pragmatically, difficulty making a decision is usually due to the person’s not finding any alternative to be more positive than the rest. Therefore, an ‘empty alternative’, one that is not specified, leaves room for both creativity and chance. (p 25)
It relates to Steve’s stance of radical acceptance – he’s not pushing for one position or another, he doesn’t care what the client chooses to do, his job is to help them work out something for themselves.
I, like many practitioners, find helping clients who are stuck in making a major decision in their lives to be a great challenge and the Aberdeen Option is a useful addition to pathways we can take.
But my favourite is still: ‘what would happen if you just tossed a coin?’
de Shazer, Steve (1988) Clues: Investigating Solutions in Brief Therapy. New York: Norton.