This week the phrase ‘perfect day’ popped up in two separate contexts. On Wednesday a participant on our Level 1 course used this phrase in raising a not uncommon concern about the client’s experience of Solution Focused Brief Therapy and then the following day, by chance. I happened to hear Lou Reed’s 1972 song ‘Perfect Day’ which I had not heard for a while. It was hearing the song that reminded me of the question.
The question that was asked was this: “when we invite people to describe their ‘perfect day’ doesn't that risk leaving people with feelings of hopelessness when they realise just how far their current experience is from that ‘perfect day’ that they have described?”. Now this is a question that is not infrequently asked on training programmes and yet my experience, my clinical experience, suggests the opposite. The first important thing to say is that we are never asking people to describe their ‘perfect day’. When we invite people to describe the Preferred Future in detail we are inviting them to describe their everyday life as transformed by the presence of their ‘best hopes.’ (George et al., 1999). They wake up in the same bed, in the same house, with the same people, living the same life. What of course is different in their description is their experience of that living, different feelings, different thoughts and different behaviours in the context of that sameness, whereby the sameness is transformed. The bereaved client is still bereaved, the terminally ill client is still terminally ill, the unemployed client is still unemployed. Nothing has changed . . . and yet everything has changed! It is in the client’s lived daily experience that the difference is to be found, rather than in the externals of the client’s situation. And of course that difference is transformative.
So the day being described is not a perfect day, but what other explanation might we have for the fact that describing the Preferred Future invites hopefulness rather than despair? One of the things that we always do when inviting a Preferred Future description is to ask questions which translate the client’s internal change experiences into the external manifestations of those experiences. We know this. If the client responds to our best hopes question saying that they would be happier and more confident we might well ask how they would know that they were happier and more confident, what difference happier and more confident would make to their living, how happier and more confident would show themselves to the people around the client. We translate feeling state responses into their lived differences. It is for example not unusual for people to say ‘well if I were happier and more confident it would be easier to get out of bed’ and if we ask what difference would that make people respond, with a laugh, that they would get up earlier. Clients might say that if they were happier and more confident they would be more likely to go out, to socialise, to ring friends. So Solution Focus facilitates a description of a Preferred Future in terms of what clients might find themselves doing. And once the client has described this life then we ask clients what might be the smallest signs that they are moving in their preferred direction, really small signs, the things that they might notice this evening or tomorrow morning.
When we support clients in describing the life that they want within these terms then the effect appears to be hopefullness rather than hopelessness. There is no need for you to take my word for this. Here are two clients commenting towards the ends of their first sessions. The first is a client of Chris Iveson’s (George et al. 1999) and the work dates from BRIEF’s very early Solution Focused practice:
? Client: For fifteen years I have been told and believed that this problem could never actually be cured, so each day I have had to make myself carry on. I’ve had to take each day as it comes and sometimes if it wasn’t for the children I would have given up. But now that I know that it is curable I’m going to try and get over it. I don’t know if I’ll be strong enough to but at least I’ll have a go!
? Therapist: What has made the difference? How come after only one session you can be so sure you can resolve things?
? Client: You’ve taken me bit by bit through a whole day and with each of my answers I’ve been asking myself ‘Can you do that (client’s name)?’ Each time I’ve been able to say ‘Yes’ so now I know that it is possible and I’m going to try.
Inviting the client to describe her preferred future in small, acts of living, terms, has allowed her to see that change is possible when previously she had doubted it. And a client of mine, much more recently effectively says the same thing:
? ‘One thing that struck me – it is very tempting for someone on this side to frame everything very negatively – to talk about problems – what I can’t do – what’s wrong – whereas what has been interesting is that this hour has been ‘what do you want?’ – ‘what would you like to achieve?’ – and I like that it hasn’t been focused on the problem - it’s been more what do you want and its made what I want seem not that far away – it has actually made what I want seem a lot closer – actually very reasonable goals that are attainable rather than these mysterious goals that I perhaps was picturing them as – when you take concepts of happiness and contentment and just make them specific, which is what I think you did - or what I did - I think that it makes you realise how attainable a lot of these goals are. So I think that I have realised that today – part of what we spoke about – a good day is not actually that far from my reach – I think that I have realised that.’
As he says ‘when you take concepts of happiness and contentment and just make them specific, which is what I think you did - or what I did - I think that it makes you realise how attainable a lot of these goals are’. As then he adds ‘a good day is not actually that far from my reach – I think that I have realised that’. Far from inducing despair, Solution Focused Preferred Future descriptions appear to result in the emergence of hope and optimism.
George, E., Iveson, C. and Ratner, H. (1990; Revised and expanded Edition 1999) Problem to Solution: Brief Therapy with Individuals and Families. London: BT Press
‘Perfect day’ This song by Lou Reed and released on his Transformer album in 1972 sounds a little like a love poem but Reed may actually be talking about his heroin use — there has been debate about this.
23rd April 2023