The Centre for Solution Focused Practice

‘I just want to be able to sleep.’ Is sleeping somehow different?

During the course of the most recent BRIEF diploma module we had an interesting discussion about sleeping. If we ask the ‘best hopes’ question and our client answers ‘I’d be happy’ or ‘I’d have more confidence’ or ‘a better relationship with my son’ or ‘I’d like myself more’ it seems to us perfectly straightforward. We feel able to step into a preferred future question ‘so if you woke up tomorrow as happy as you could hope to be, how would you know?’ and the other client responses above seem just as easy. However if in response to our ‘so what are your best hopes from our talking together?’ the client responds ‘I’d be able to sleep’ we seem to be thrown into doubt and confusion.

There are two ‘obvious’ questions that we might ask to follow up the ‘best hopes’ response ‘I’d be able to sleep’. The first is ‘imagine you woke up after a good night’s sleep what is the very first thing that you would notice that would tell you that you had slept well?’. Alternatively we might interpose an extra question before stepping into the preferred future, asking ‘If you were to be able to sleep what difference would that make?’. Assuming that the client responds ‘I’d feel like getting up in the morning, I’d have more energy, I feel able to get on with my life’, we could then ask a tomorrow question ‘so imagine that you wake up tomorrow able to get on with your life what is the first thing that you would notice?’. So what might be the difficulty? Surely we can just step into a preferred future description along these lines. The difficulty that we sometimes encounter is when the client responds to our question by reiterating ‘but the problem is that I can’t sleep’ and the risk is that client and worker enter into a potentially testy ‘yes but if you could’, ‘yes but I can’t’ sort of interchange that risks becoming argumentative. On other occasions we see the client initially going with the question and beginning to describe before coming out of the description and reminding us ‘but the problem is that I CAN’T sleep’, thereby putting an end to their describing. When this happens the risk is that we give up our description-based approach and shift closer to ‘problem-solving’, asking questions about the times that the client was able to sleep and what was different at those times and since very often the client does not know, the conversation risks beginning to feel stuck and sticky.

So what alternatives might we have? And there do seem to me to be two that can offer us a way forward, a way out of the potential revolving-door stuckness. The first involves us asking a different preferred future question, one that is more likely to ‘fit’ the client. We can ask our client, Steve perhaps, ‘so imagine Steve that the version of Steve who wakes up tomorrow morning is the version of Steve who can sleep – what is the very fist thing that the can-sleep version of Steve will notice in the morning . . . ?’. By framing the question this way the client is less likely to respond by saying ‘but I can’t’ and therefore is more likely to be able to begin describing the ‘can-sleep’ life. Another possibility is to interpose between ‘best hopes’ and ‘preferred future’ a different intermediate question.
‘So what are your best hopes from our talking together?’
‘I want to be able to sleep.’
‘OK – so tell me about the Steve who can sleep. What is that Steve like?’
‘Well – I’m not sure – maybe I’d be more relaxed, I wouldn’t be worrying so much, I’d be more in the moment – perhaps.’
‘OK – so let’s suppose that tomorrow the relaxed, not-worrying-so-much, more in-the-moment Steve wakes up, what is the very first thing that that Steve would notice?’
Again this framing reduces the likelihood that the client will revert to ‘but I can’t’ since the question is asking about the Steve that can, and this is just what the client wants to be able to do.
The task of the Solution Focused practitioner is to frame questions that can potentially make a difference in their answering, and questions that can potentially make a difference have to be questions that ‘fit’ the client and make sense in the client’s situation and therein lies our craft, therein lies our creativity and therefrom comes our joy.

Thanks to the 2018 – 19 BRIEF SF Diploma cohort and to Harvey Ratner for inspiring these thoughts and for coming up with some of these ideas.

Evan George
18 November 2018.