Towards the end of a recent training programme one of the participants asked a question about ‘best hopes’ – well more specifically what to do if the client doesn’t answer the ‘best hopes’ question. The particular context involved meeting a 14-year-old boy who had been ‘sent’ to meet with her and who, despite the worker’s best efforts had still not described his ‘best hopes’ by the end of the first meeting. As a group we began to generate ideas about what can be useful in such circumstances although it is only fair to the worker to say that she had tried pretty well everything that we discussed.
Before I start summarising the group’s ideas I think that we need to remind ourselves of three things. First when young people are sent to meet with a therapist they are very often feeling criticized. The simple fact of the referral suggests that the adult world, or key representatives of that world, believe that there is something wrong with the way that the young person is living their life and that they need help to make changes. As benevolent as this might seem, and it often genuinely is, young people will frequently feel that their life choices, their preferred ways of living, are being judged and will feel resentful. The risk in this case is that the therapist will appear to represent just another face of the impositional and judgemental adult world. If this is indeed the young person’s experience then the therapist may have to persuade the young person that the therapist is working ‘in good faith’. In addition, and this point seems in some ways to run contrary to the first, in SF we always choose to assume that people have good reasons for attending and that ‘good reason’ is discoverable if I, the worker, can ask good enough questions. And third, what I notice time and time again is that typically people do answer the best hopes question and that those occasions when we do not find a way of eliciting a ‘best hopes’ statement in a first meeting are truly very few and far between. Thus of course it is useful to consider those situations where we are finding it difficult but we should not be lead to assume that these situations happen often.
Before we think about any ideas that could be useful we do need to remember that we are never trying to ‘get the client to answer. As soon as we start trying to ‘get’ the client to answer then we start using force, however subtly and however nicely done, and in the face of force most people respond with counter-force in the shape of increased refusal. We can make this clear by saying to the client ‘it is my job to ask you questions that I hope will be useful to you – only you can decide whether you want to answer those questions – you might choose to answer some and not others – you might choose to answer the questions out loud or quietly and privately in your head – you might choose to go away and think about the questions afterwards – it is important that you decide to do exactly what is right for you’. In this way silence is framed as co-operation rather than challenge!
10 ideas if we find ourselves in this situation
1. Kindly and respectfully persist. Some people will say ‘don’t know’, or indeed say nothing, as a matter of habit and they have discovered that if they do so by and large adults will give up and leave them alone and even if they are not left alone the young person has not said anything and therefore cannot be held to account for it! A pretty good idea in a situation that does not feel safe.
2. Kindly and respectfully persist while changing the phrasing, moving from knowing to guessing ‘so what do you think – have a guess’.
3. Apologise for lack of clarity, ask permission to try again, and rephrase.
4. Apologise for persistence and explain the rationale ‘I know that I am going on and on about this, your best hopes from our talking, but if I don’t know what you want from this then it is going to be really difficult for me to get this right for you’. This framing often appears to be particularly appealing to young people who are perhaps unused to adults working really hard to determine what the young person might want. More often what they experience is the adult world demanding that the young person fit in, in a manner that denies any interest in the young person’s own ideas.
5. ‘Best friend perspective’ – ‘who knows you best in a good way? How would she or he know that our talking together had ended up being useful?’ And if the client answers we can then check out ‘and if that were to happen would that be good for you too?’ If the difficulty is one of clarity then many people, and not just young people, frequently find it easier to see things from an externalised, other person perspective.
6. ‘Referrer perspective’ – ‘whose idea was it for you to meet with me today? What do you think that her best hopes are for this conversation? And if that were to happen would that be good for you too?’ If the client answers ‘no’ to that question we can be interested in ‘so how come you decided to come today – I assume that you must have had a good reason.’
7. Apologise and start somewhere else. ‘Sorry I think that I have tried to go too fast. I sometimes do that. Tell me if I am doing it again and I can try to slow down. So how do like to spend your time at present?’ Adults apologising and owning the difficulty is not a regular experience for young people and seems engaging. And there is no mere strategy going on when we are apologising, we are not trying to ‘trick’ the young person, it is a statement of fact as we see it within the approach. It is the worker’s job to ask questions that people can work with a time that they can work with them. If we get this wrong it is right for us to apologise and to ‘try again’.
8. Apologise for going too fast and ask the young person ‘I’m sorry I should have said – before I ask you my questions do you have any questions for me – who I am, what I do, how I work, anything at all that would put you at ease’.
9. ‘Let’s start somewhere else – what about 20 things that you would not want to change about your life’ – and obviously it is the job of the therapist to get really really interested in those things that are working and the client would not want to change. If the young person had arrived at the session wanting to say that life is fine this gives them the opportunity to start the conversation this way. At the end of the talking the therapist can ask the young person, of these 20 things that are going well for you which would you like to build on which would you perhaps like to see growing.
10. Use a multi-scale and inviting young people to review the various key elements of their lives, most typically home life, school life, friendships while then checking out whether there are other areas that are of particular significance to this particular young person. Then each can be scaled, ‘0 – 10 with 10 standing for things couldn’t be going better and 0 standing for the opposite’. If any of those key areas is not scaled at 10 then this can provide the basis for ‘and how would you know that things were just one point better at home, and if they could be one point better would that be good for you’. If the young person agrees that things could be better and that this would make a positive difference then the worker can again ask ‘so if we did some talking and you noticed things moving up on that home scale, would that be useful’.
As I have been jotting down these thoughts more ideas have been occurring to me – but then I guess that more ideas have been occurring to you too. Do let us all know what works for you in these circumstances. Remember that in SFBT there should not be a strategy, a 1-2-3, but having some ideas allows us more easily to find what might fit for this particular client, having some ideas will allow us to concentrate on listening to our client, sitting confidently with the person while together we find the way forward that is likely to be useful.
3rd June 2018
(I will share the name of the course participant when I have her permission so to do.)