Some years ago a participant at the beginning of the third day of one of BRIEF’s 4-day foundation programmes in Solution Focused Practice put up her hand. Although perhaps surprisingly and unnecessarily formal I assumed that she was wanting to ask a question so I turned towards her and waited. What she said took me aback. ‘How can you bear’ she asked ‘to do this stuff’? Now anyone who knows me will know that it is hard to miss my enthusiasm for and belief in the Solution Focused approach and those who know me well will also know that when talking about SF I am rarely short of an answer, indeed the opposite is probably the case, that when asked a question I am likely to go on for much too long. But on this occasion I was lost for words and while I slowly thought how to respond, in a way that might be useful and respectful, she helped me out ‘because problems Evan, they’re so interesting – how can you bear not to focus on problems’?
Since that time it has become more and more obvious to me that people have very different views of therapy, how to define it, how it should proceed and what it is trying to achieve and indeed that the divergences are so great that perhaps calling the whole range of procedures by the same name, ‘therapy’, might actually be unhelpfully confusing. I came across the latest example of this last week when our friend Carolyn Emanuel copied a line from a recently published book inviting BRIEF’s views. The book by Mick Cooper and Duncan Law (2018) entitled ‘Working with Goals in Psychotherapy and Counselling’ acknowledged some of the scepticism in the wider therapeutic world concerning ‘goals focused approaches’. ‘Goal striving’ they say is seen by some as the ‘core sickness of a contemporary, western, neoliberal society’ and thus a related, and tainted by association, ‘goal oriented approach may be seen as the antithesis of therapeutic practice’. (p8)
Now as it happens SF also has some concerns about the concept of goals and at BRIEF we pretty well never use the term even though it turns up repeatedly in all of the early, and some more recent, texts on the approach. At BRIEF we worry that the term might lead to a rigidity in the therapeutic process, framing the rather usual human propensity for changing our minds as a problem, perhaps even as pathological, and by supporting and inviting a too narrow focus on the goals missing other opportunities, devaluing, indeed almost rendering invisible, successes and achievements in the client’s life that do not strictly fit the pre-defined ‘goals’. As Jack Trout (1999) puts it in the ‘Power of Simplicity’ ‘another problem with goal-setting is that it creates a certain amount of inflexibility. When you’re focused on a goal, you tend to miss opportunities that present themselves when you take a different direction’. So instead of ‘goals’ we talk about ‘best hopes’ thereby hoping to eschew the unhelpful associations that come with the word ‘goals’. And yet there is of course a similarity. The ‘best hopes’ provide therapist and client with a direction and a focus for the talking. Indeed since SFBT seeks to centralise the client rather than the therapist, it could be said that the talking doesn’t start until clients have described their ‘best hopes’. (I was looking at a piece of work of my colleague Harvey Ratner working with a woman who had been having a quite exceptionally tough time. She is struggling to describe the future that she wants. Harvey had been turning the questions this way and that way, in turn gently persisting and shifting, and finally the client finds herself saying that she would ‘have more ‘energy’. ‘Now you are talking’ responds Harvey, who can suddenly see a way forward for the conversation!)
So why is it that whilst for some therapists ‘goals’ are viewed as related to the ‘core sickness of contemporary, western, neo-liberal society’ and for others they are seen as a pre-requisite not just for effective therapy but perhaps even for an ethical therapy, as we would in SFBT. There are perhaps three key reasons that ‘Best hopes’ have such a central place in the SFBT approach.
1. The client’s best hopes’ empower the client in relation to the therapist. If we do not ask what the client wants then the risk is that the therapist will seek to move in the direction that the therapist believes to be right for the client. In SFBT we do not take a view on how life should be lived, on what is healthy, on what is better. SF therapists take the view that we are working for the client and that is not our job to know better in the matter of living, even while we are being useful in supporting the client to build the life that fits with their best hopes.
2. Specifying the ‘best hopes’ at the beginning of therapy also serves to demarcate, for the client, the scope of the therapist’s legitimate enquiry. Bill O’Hanlon, on one his many trips to London, memorably stated that as therapists ‘we have no right to go sight-seeing in our clients’ lives’. In SFBT we would say that every question we ask has to be directly related to the client’s best hopes and if it is not then we have inadvertently, perhaps, gone sight-seeing. The ‘best hopes’ in this way can serve to protect the client from unwarranted and unjustified intrusion.
3. And Steve de Shazer (1988), many years ago, wrote ‘Without goals, therapists and clients cannot know when the therapy has succeeded or failed’ (p93). If we fail to specify outcome criteria for the therapy, then the likelihood of the therapy being brief is immediately reduced. The analogy that we have often used at BRIEF is that of the London cab-driver. As you open the door and lean in the cabbie will as often as not say to you something on the lines of ‘where to guv?’ It is the cab driver’s job to then chart the quickest and thereby cheapest route. If the driver were, somewhat perversely perhaps, to ask the question ‘where from guv’ as we get in, we could be in for a very long and very expensive journey. And the same is probably true in therapy.
So, as long as we don’t fall into an overly rigid reading of the best hopes, it seems that specifying what the client wants from therapy can not only empower the client in relation to the therapist, not only serve to protect the client from intrusion but also increase the opportunity for brevity. Cooper and Law (2018) put it beautifully ‘In this respect, a client’s goals are less like the final destination of a sea voyage, and more like the stars in the sky or the moon, which can provide orientation, guidance and some illumination to the therapeutic work’ (p8). In SFBT the ‘best hopes’ provide ‘orientation’ to the work throughout and indeed ‘illumination’, helping the therapist to frame relevant, and appropriate, questions.
Mick Cooper and Duncan Law (2018) ‘Working with Goals in Psychotherapy and Counselling’ Oxford: Oxford University Press
de Shazer, Steve (1988) Clues: Investigating Solutions in Brief Therapy. New York: Norton.
Jack Trout (1999) The Power of Simplicity New York: McGraw-Hill