(This piece is also available as a YouTube lecture with PowerPoint if you are feeling tired this morning. The link has just been posted.)
The way this question goes, and almost everyone of you reading this piece will probably be familiar with the question and may well use it in your work, is ‘What are your best hopes from our talking together?’ (George et al.,1999). Since Harvey Ratner and I first noticed our colleague Chris Iveson using this question in 1998/99, the question has achieved taken-for-granted status, the sort of question that we rarely feel the need to examine too closely. The question itself is significant, since in our view adopting it was a key part of what at BRIEF we have often referred to as ‘straightening the line’ (1), constructing an approach that did justice to Steve de Shazer’s radical and extraordinary thinking and writing, but we rarely stop to really consider the question’s construction and what it potentially communicates. So we are going to start at the beginning and work our way through to the end – slowly.
What. The question starts with the word ‘what’. We do not enquire whether the client has any hopes from ‘our talking together’ we assume that the client must have hopes. Indeed we choose to assume that anyone who is prepared to talk with us must be hoping for something from that conversation. For someone to spend time talking with a practitioner without hoping for something out of that conversation would be foolish and why would we ever choose to think of our clients as foolish. Thus we assume that everyone we meet has hopes, and the task for the worker is to ask good enough questions such that the client can articulate those hopes. So we start with ‘what’.
Are. We are not interested in why people were referred to us at some point in the past, neither are we interested in what they might have wanted at the point when they decided to fix up an appointment. We are interested in what they are hoping for now as they sit with us and what relationship their current hopes might or might not have with what brought them to us is no part of our interest.
Your. Your is a key word – ‘your’ best hopes. Again we are not interested in what the referrer might have wanted and certainly it is no part of Solution Focus for the worker herself to have any hopes for the client, except in the most generic terms of benevolently hoping that people get what they want from therapy. In Solution Focus there is no process of assessment, the approach is non-normative, and therefore the worker cannot know what the client could/should be hoping for. In Solution Focused Brief Therapy it is the client who is right at the heart of the work, it is their ‘Best Hopes’ that are important, indeed they are the sine qua non of a Solution Focused process. Until the client gives us an answer to the ‘Best hopes’ question that we can work with, we have nowhere to go, no question to ask, no focus, no starting point.
Hopes. Let’s for a moment jump over ‘best’ and alight on ‘hopes’. The word ‘hopes’ is important. We are not talking with the client about what they might wish for, what they might desire, even what they might want. We are very specifically asking about ‘hopes’. People can want/desire/wish for anything but we can only ‘hope’ for things that are possible. The question primes people to answer with something that can indeed happen – although of course should they not so do we can simply ask ‘and what difference would it make to you if your partner were to be back with you?’ and thus build with people a viable foundation for the talking.
Best. If we return to the word ‘best’, Solution Focused practitioners do not invite people to articulate mundane, little, everyday ‘hopes’ we ask people for their ‘best hopes’. The word is interesting. The word seems to me to convey belief and trust at two levels. The word points to the worker’s faith in the approach; this is not just an approach which can facilitate small changes, it is a powerful approach which invites people’s ‘best hopes’, a hostage to fortune any but a confident worker confident in their model might fear. And the word ‘best’ points to our belief in the client; here is someone who has the capacity to make big, bold changes.
From. The word ‘from’ might disappear surrounded by all these other bigger and seemingly more significant words and yet the word is important. ‘From’ invites the client to find the evidence of ‘best’ utility, their ‘best hopes’, in their life outside therapy; the evidence of usefulness will be articulated in their lived life. If on the other hand we use the word ‘for’ in the place of ‘from’ the client is more likely to focus on a response that could be described as an in-therapy response ‘I will be able to get it all off my chest’, ‘I will feel listened to’, ‘I will be able to talk through what has happened to me’. Naturally each and every one of these latter responses can very simply become the basis for a useful Solution Focused conversation, just that an additional question is required, an extra step, ‘and what difference would that make’, that might not have been necessary if we had remembered to ask ‘from’.
Our talking together. The final three words are best thought of together. First of all this phrase sets out what is ahead for the client, we are going to be ‘talking together’. The work will not involve the worker telling the client what to do, will not involve the client being cured or treated. Worker and client are going to be ‘talking together’, nothing more and of course nothing less. And the phrase proposes a co-operation, ‘our’ and ‘together’ both point clearly in this direction. The worker will not be talking to the client, we are going to be ‘talking together’. And the phrase does not propose how often we are going to meet; as is characteristic of Solution Focus at the beginning of a piece of work neither the worker nor the client could possibly know how long ‘it’ will take. But in addition it is not ‘this session’ either. If we ask ‘what are your best hopes from this session, this meeting?’ the question is too difficult. A client who is assuming that they will be attending a number of times will first have to envisage what their overall hopes are and then have to scale these down when thinking how much of that might be achieved today. It is truly easier to leave the time context undefined ‘from our talking together’ however long or short that might turn out to be.
So this question ‘What are your best hopes from our talking together?’ which first emerged in Chris Iveson’s practice, before being picked up by the whole BRIEF team and then finding its way into the work of practitioners across the globe, is carefully framed, each word playing its part in conveying a complex package of meanings which go to the heart of our model, our thinking and our assumptions. And next time each of us uses the question perhaps we will, for a passing millisecond, stop and pay our tribute to the truly miraculous nature of these few simple words.
(1) In his third book in 1988 Steve de Shazer wrote ‘If you want to get from point A to point B, but know no details of the terrain in between, the best thing to do is to assume that you can go from A to B by following a straight line. If this assumption proves faulty and you run into huge mountains, then you need to look for a pass that is as close as possible to your original straight line.’ (p 150)
de Shazer, Steve (1988) Clues: Investigating Solutions in Brief Therapy. New York: Norton.
10th May 2020