The Centre for Solution Focused Practice

‘I don’t know’

One of the most common questions on training courses is something on the lines of ‘what do you do if the client doesn’t know what they want?’ And of course it is an important question. Although interestingly, just like the question ‘what do you do when the clients best hopes are impossible, or unrealistic’, it is something that hardly ever happens in ‘real life’. However of course it could perhaps happen, and if the concern that it might happen stops people adopting the Solution Focused approach then it might be useful to have a simple 5 step approach.

So let’s imagine that the worker starts with BRIEF’s most frequent opening question:
‘so what are your best hopes from our talking together?’ (George, 1999) and the client responds ‘I don’t know’.

1. Wait a little. The temptation is to jump in and to ‘rescue’ the client, immediately asking another question or changing the opening formulation. However very often if we just wait a little longer than would be usual in a normal conversation, clients grasp that it is still their ‘turn’ and respond with a slightly hesitant ‘well I suppose that I’d just be less anxious all the time’. Of course in these circumstances steps 2 – 5 are unnecessary!

2. However of course it is possible that the client, after a short thinking pause, might respond by saying ‘I really don’t know’. If this were to happen the Solution Focused worker is likely to ‘normalise’ the response and soften the question:
‘of course – it’s not an easy question – take your time – what do you think might make this useful?’ And again most clients will respond at this point – except of course for those who (very rarely) do not and who say again ‘I really don’t know’.

3. So at this point we might ask an other-person perspective question:
‘So who knows you best, in a good way?’
‘My partner.’
‘Ok so what’s her/his name?’
‘OK so if I were to ask J how s/he would know that your coming here had turned out to be useful what do you think that s/he would say?’ 
If the client were to respond by saying, for instance:
‘well I suppose that she’d say that she wants to see me happier’,
then we can invite the client into ownership by asking:
‘and would that be good for you too if you found yourself happier?’, 
and at this point, in my experience every client says ‘Yes’.
However if the client responds that there is no-one who knows them well, or that they do not know what that person might say, then there are two options still available to us, both of which involve us in ‘looping’ back through the problem before moving forward again.

4. ‘So how come you decided to come in to meet with me today?’
‘I’ve been feeling really down recently.’
‘Ok – and if we were to do some talking and that were to change would that make this useful?’
‘So your best hopes from this . . . . ?’

5. But if the client were to say ‘I’m not sure really why I am here or how I decided to come’ (a somewhat improbable scenario I must admit), then we can ask:
‘So whose idea was it for you to come here today?’
‘My Social Worker.’
‘OK – and what do you think are your social worker’s best hopes from you coming here?’
‘He’s worried that I’ve been really down recently and that I haven’t been able to respond to the children or to give them very much at all really.’
‘So how come you decided to come?’
At this point most clients will either state that they agree with the referrer’s view, or that the referrer is ‘twisting their arm’, ‘well I won’t get the children back unless I make changes’ or they might say that they really don’t know why the referrer sent them (although that has never actually happened in my experience). However if this were to happen we might respond by suggesting;
‘what about having a three-way meeting with your social worker so we can be clear about his best hopes and where you stand – would that be useful?’

So here is a possible conversational structure for those times when it is tough for the client to answer the ‘best hopes’ question. Of course the vast majority of people who come for therapy, counselling or coaching come for very good reasons. They know why they have come and when we ask they have relatively little difficulty answering our question way before step 5. However knowing that there are these 5 steps might be helpful in allowing us not to have to fret.

George, E., Iveson, C. and Ratner, H. (1990; New Edition 1999) Problem to Solution: Brief Therapy with Individuals and Families. London: BT Press

Evan George
September 2017