The Centre for Solution Focused Practice

Do you have to be an Optimist?

Optimism has got itself a bad name. Leibniz’s proposition that we live in ‘the best of all possible worlds’, although logically argued starting with his taken-for-granted premise of his God’s omnibenevolent omnipotence, no longer convinces in a world within which there is so much suffering and has come to be associated with a discredited 'optimism'. Optimists are now viewed as naïve and are frequently dismissed as ‘pollyannaish’, linked in people’s minds with the epomynous hero of Eleanor Porter’s 1913 children’s book where the central figure, Pollyanna, plays the ‘glad game’, namely seeking to find something positive in every and any situation. To be optimistic is to be seen as superficial, as wilfully in denial of the huge problems which face us. So to hear people (often of other therapeutic persuasions) say ‘surely you have to be an optimist to be a Solution Focused practitioner’ does not always feel particularly complimentary. However more important than trying to figure out ‘are we being subtly insulted’, and the question that those of us who use SF need to think about, is ‘is it true - do you have to be optimistic?’

Chris Iveson in his recent conversation with Elliott Connie in a video ‘published’ as part 3 of the current BRIEF International Free 3 Part SFBT Video Training Series 2017 when asked by Elliott about ‘one very important, crucial thing that people need to do Solution Focused Brief Therapy well’ comments as follows:
‘you have to be able to take a very pragmatic position – a position that is nothing to do with optimism or belief or anything – it is just a very pragmatic decision that anybody can change – you have to believe that the person in front of you can do their life differently – that has to be the position you take, your basic assumption’.

Chris is very clear. He is not saying that ‘you need to be the sort of person who believes in your clients’ capacities’, in a dispositional sort of way. He is not describing the sort of person that you need to be, perhaps ‘an optimistic sort of person, a glass-half-full’ sort of person’. He is describing a ‘decision’. We have to decide to believe. He is pointing us to a sort of voluntaristic position, a position that we adopt, and we adopt it without needing to rely on any evidence. We are not requiring this particular client to convince us that she can change. We have already decided to believe that every client can change, or as Chris puts it ‘can do their life differently’. Of course having adopted this ‘stance’, this ‘position’, what tends to happen is that we are then more likely to come across the evidence for belief in the particular client with whom we are sitting. Terry Eagleton, in my favourite book of the moment, Hope without Optimism (2015), talks about Ernest Bloch’s view of hope as ‘performative’, it is something that we do, something active, rather than something passive and this leads him to write ‘to have confidence in a particular future may help to usher it in’ (p 84). So when we adopt the stance of ‘belief in the client’s capacity to change’ it is similarly ‘performative’, we do it, it impacts our behaviour, the way that we interact with the client and is likelier to lead to the emergence of the evidence, (the ushering in of evidence), than if we start in a position of radical scepticism ‘I don’t believe in clients’ capacities to change’ or even partial case-based scepticism ‘I need to be convinced in each case’.

So there is no requirement to be an optimistic person to be a Solution Focused practitioner. We are not indulging in the ‘banality of optimism’ (p 1) as Eagleton (2015) puts it. The stance that we take is a ‘discipline’, it is tough and of course it is particularly tough to maintain in those situations where the client is over-whelmed with problems, where those problems have been long-lasting, where the many previous attempts to change have all failed, where the community around the client have also given up hope, where the client has found it difficult to engage with professionals, where professionals have begun to describe the client as ‘unmotivated’, as ‘resistant’, as ‘not wanting to change’, and when this is session 3 and nothing much useful seems to have happened. It is at this point that keeping our belief alive becomes a real challenge, and it is at these times that keeping our belief alive is all the more important. The client really does not need a worker who does not believe in her capacity to change. She needs a worker who can hold onto the stance of belief in the absolute absence of any evidence. The more difficult it is to believe, the more important it is to keep that belief alive. And when the going gets really tough for the worker to hold on to their belief, who knows, being naturally optimistic may help a little!

Many thanks to Chris and to Elliott and to Terry and Denise.

Eagleton, Terry (2015) Hope without Optimism. New Haven and London: Yale University Press

Evan George
September 2017