The Centre for Solution Focused Practice

Hopes and/or dreams?

Wishes, wants, desires, dreams, hopes, expectations – does it matter? Some years ago the BRIEF team coined the opening question ‘so what are your best hopes from our talking together?’ and this has been the foundational question in our work since that time (George et al, 1999). Why foundational? Because one of the key characteristics of the Solution Focused approach is that our work with clients must be founded on the answer to this opening question. In our work, unlike in many, if not indeed most, other therapeutic approaches there is no distinction between what the client might ‘hope for from the talking’ and what the client might be thought to ‘need’, since after all the Solution Focused approach has neither any interest in ‘assessing’ what a client might need, nor any tools to do so even if we decided that to do so would be a good idea. So in our work it is the client’s ‘hopes’ that are central and if those hopes have not been articulated then the worker has no questions to ask, no starting point for the therapeutic conversation. But why ‘hopes’, (even if the client’s very ‘best’ ones)? Why not ‘wishes’ or ‘wants’ or ‘desires’? And is there a difference?

Terry Eagleton’s book Hope without Optimism (2015) provides us with some interesting pointers which seem to support BRIEF’s choice of the word ‘hopes’ rather than ‘wishes’ or ‘wants’ or ‘desires’. We do not ask ‘what do you want from our talking’ or ‘what would you like to happen as a result of our talking’ or even ’what do you expect our talking to lead to’, and our choice of the word ‘hope’ is far from random. Eagleton’s exploration of the difference between ‘hope’ and ‘desire’ fits well with our core thinking. At the heart of the distinction that he draws is his proposition that ‘hope’ must contain within it a basis of possibility that is not required in the act of wishing or wanting. We can wish for, or desire, or want anything, but we can only hope for that which is possible. The client who is bereaved when we ask ‘so what are your best hopes . . . ‘ may answer with heart-felt impatience ‘all I really want, the only thing that would make a difference in my life would be if my (lost one) were back with me’. The client instinctively knows that he cannot answer ‘all I am hoping for is for my (lost one) to return’, because generally we cannot hope for the impossible, and so the client alters the question and inserts the alternate word ‘want’ in their answer, as if that is what we asked. So in Solution Focused Brief Therapy we really are working with people’s hopes and when they misunderstand us and answer with a wish or desire, we hang on in there with them asking questions until they convert the wish into a hope.

“Because hope involves a degree of expectation, it is generally speaking more narrationally inflected than desire, which may simply shuttle from one object to the next with no very obvious storyline. By contrast there is the ghost of a plot to hope, which links a present impulse to a future fulfilment. . . . To hope means to imaginatively project oneself into a future that is grasped as possible and thus (is) in some shadowy sense, already present, rather than simply to languish in the grip of an appetite. . . Potentiality is what articulates the present with the future, and thus lays down the material infrastructure of hope.” (p52) 
Eagleton continues:
“Hope, then, is a more positive disposition than desire. The latter tends to revolve around a sense of lack, while the former mixes this disquiet with a sense of tensed expectancy. Hope for Aquinas has something of the discomfort of desire because its object is not yet secure, but counterpoints this restiveness with an eager reaching out to that end. It is a movement toward the good, not simply a craving for it. Hope originates in desire, but adds to it a certain buoyancy or touch of elation, which is not the case with common-or-garden craving.” (pp 52 – 53)

There is so much of Eagleton’s thinking here that resonates with our Solution Focused practice. The idea that hope is more ‘narrationally inflected’ is interesting. When we hope Eagelton argues that we are already projecting ourselves forward into a life where the hope is fulfilled; however shadowy and vague there is a ‘plot’ that connects where we are now to the state of fulfilment and thus even though (merely) in the sense of a potential, that future is already present. This fits wonderfully well with precisely what we are doing when we invite the client to step into a tomorrow when the best hopes are happening. And of course a ‘sense of tensed expectancy’ is exactly what we would wish for in our client. This is a description of a state that is likely to fit with the emergence of new and different behaviours whilst a client ‘languishing in the grip of an appetite’ might be harder to work with. Eagleton’s comment ‘Potentiality is what articulates the present with the future, and thus lays down the material infrastructure of hope’ is fascinating and opens new perspectives onto what we are doing with our clients. But perhaps I would go further and argue that the Solution Focused approach also does so. I understand his point that ‘potentiality . . . lays down the material infrastructure of hope’, but we would seek to move beyond hope into ‘expectation’ and it is instance and exception questions, previous change and identity questions that ‘lay down the material infrastructure’ for expectation. In order to hope we require a sense of possibility or potentiality, but in order to expect we need evidence and it is to the evidence for expectation that solution focused questions direct the client’s attention.

Eagleton’s book is fascinating and I can already see will bear reading and re-reading in order for me to more fully grasp the richness of this thinking and its potential for our field.

Eagleton, Terry (2015) Hope without Optimism. New Haven and London: Yale University Press
George, E., Iveson, C., Ratner, H. (1999) Problem to Solution. London:  BTPress.

Evan George
Dinas Cross, Pembrokeshire, Wales
September 2017.