When Steve de Shazer began to refer to the Miracle Question in the later 1980’s his thinking about the purpose of the sequence was clear. Let’s take this example from Clues (de Shazer, 1988):
“typically, when directly asked about their goals for therapy, clients will talk about wanting to “feel better” or wanting to have “better communication” or something equally global and non-specific. Indirectly asking about goals, using the miracle sequence, consistently elicits descriptions of concrete and specific behaviours. We have found this way of quickly looking into the future to be a most effective frame for helping clients set goals and thus describe how they will know when the problem is solved” (pp 5 – 6). The purpose of asking the Miracle question was to invite the setting of goals in a concrete and specific form. However by 2007 de Shazer is talking about the Miracle Question quite differently: “. . . for many people, the activity of answering (the Miracle Question) appears to elicit a significant shift in their state of consciousness”, de Shazer et al., 2007, p 42), in other words he is suggesting that for the client, answering the miracle question in itself makes a difference. Why this should be the case is surely intriguing, even though ultimately, I believe, unknowable for certain. All that we can do is to generate more or less compelling stories. However given that I would characteristically spend about 35 minutes in a first session inviting people to describe the ‘preferred future’ (Ratner et al., 2012) it is surely necessary to have some sort of answer to the oft-asked question ‘but why do you do this?’ other than ‘well it seems to work’.
Some years ago, many of you will know, I came across Terry Eagleton’s book “Hope without Optimism” (2015) and in that book I found this: “Even so, the mere act of being able to imagine an alternative future may distance and relativise the present, loosening its grip upon us to the point where the future in question becomes more feasible. . . . True hopelessness would be when such imaginings were inconceivable” (p. 85). This, for me, points us towards one simple theory as to why answering the miracle question in itself makes a difference, assuming that Steve de Shazer is correct and at BRIEF we believe this to be the case.
1. People typically come to us because their experience of the present is deemed by them to be unsatisfactory. It might be better to say that they come because the description that they have generated of the present is unsatisfactory to them and they describe themselves as sad, depressed, anxious, failing, miserable and so on.
2. When people generate a description of a present the first thing that we human beings seem to do is to generate a version of the past that fits with that present, so we edit the past to pick out all the things that might explain the sad, depressed, anxious, failing, miserable present. We create coherence in our description. The present constructs a version of the past.
3. Once we have generated a description of the present, supported by a version of the past that is coherent with the present description, it is likely that, almost without thinking, we will generate a version of the future that fits with the present and the past. If the present is ‘miserable’ and we have constructed a ‘misery- coherent’ past, then the implication is that the future will also be miserable.
4. And when we have generated an expectation of future misery, since we human beings seem to go round our worlds confirming the rightness of our expectations, then it is likely that we will notice and give significance to those events, those experiences that will confirm the rightness of the story. ‘I was right all along’.
So let’s go back to Eagleton where he writes “the mere act of being able to imagine an alternative future may distance and relativise the present, loosening its grip upon us to the point where the future in question becomes more feasible”. If we can imagine an alternative (and compelling) future, then the act of so imagining implicitly calls into doubt the description of the present. Maybe the description of the present is inaccurate, maybe it is missing something, maybe there is more to the present, (and thus to the past), than we had realised. The determinative power of the present description is undermined and as Eagleton writes ‘its grip upon us” is loosened, even to the point that “the future in question becomes more feasible”. Yes indeed “imagining an alternative future” can serve to shift our experience of the present. There are undoubtedly other cleverer theories, and yet this simple sequence certainly makes sense to me.
de Shazer, Steve (1988) Clues: Investigating Solutions in Brief Therapy. New York: Norton.
de Shazer, Steve, Dolan, Yvonne, Korman, Harry, Trepper, Terry, MacCollum, Eric and Berg, Insoo Kim (2007) More Then Miracles: the state of the art of solution focused therapy. New York: Haworth.
Eagleton, Terry (2015) Hope without optimism. New Haven: Yale University Press
Ratner, H., George, E., Iveson, C. (2012) Solution Focused Brief Therapy: 100 Key Ideas and Techniques. London: Routledge
22 May 2022 – 89th day of Vladimir Putin’s war on the people of Ukraine.