I would really like your help and your thoughts with this. You all know that at BRIEF we start our work with clients by asking, within the first few minutes of a first session, indeed sometimes sooner, the ‘best hopes’ (George et al., 1999) question ‘what are you best hopes from our talking together?’. And once the client has responded we typically ask a ‘Tomorrow Question’ (Ratner et al., 2012) ‘so imagine that you woke up tomorrow and all of your best hopes were happening . . . how would you know?’. At this point most clients begin to describe, without apparent difficulty, the day that contains their best hopes. But when they do that what are they doing and how do they do it? This is a question that has been sitting with me for a while.
One possible clue, oddly enough, can be found in a response that clients who are struggling to describe their best hopes day sometimes, infrequently but sometimes, give us. As they struggle and we persist and they struggle and we persist then they occasionally, perhaps when we have persisted more than we might have or less kindly than we should have, they occasionally snap ‘how can you expect me to know how to answer, I have never been happy, so how can you expect me to describe a happy day’. So one way that people can describe the day that contains the best hopes is to think how things have been in the past when they were happy to pick out the key elements of that life and to insert them into their response. Indeed they will sometimes make this process explicit ‘I used to have more energy, I used to go out more, do more things, I was interested in other people, I would enquire about other people’s lives, how they were and what they were doing, I used to exercise, go to the gym . . . so I suppose that I would start doing those things again’. Here the process is relatively simple, something has disappeared from someone’s life and they would like it back. It seems that people might be saying to themselves ‘I used to be happy and when I was happy I used to do these things and now I am unhappy and I no longer do those things (or could it be the other way round?) so being happy again must involve doing those things again. Here we have a process of recollection and projection going on, recollecting from the past and inserting into a description of a preferred future. So what is going on when the client says ‘I have never been confident?’, when the client is not recalling but appears to be constructing a ‘new’ description of something previously unexperienced.
Steve de Shazer frequently commented, when arguing for the inevitability of exceptions in problem patterns, that if the client had never experienced happy they could not know that they were unhappy since their current ‘unhappy’ state would be normal, would be just how things are, aways have been and perhaps therefore how they must be. But is this true? Could I not decide that I am suffering from social phobia even if I have never ever, not once, felt comfortable when talking in public, meeting strangers, being required to initiate social discourse? Surely merely observing the people around us, comparing their responses and behaviours with our own, could lead to the self-diagnosis of ‘social phobia’ and by describing what we see our friends doing we could answer a ‘Tomorrow Question’ without ever having experienced any of the elements of the preferred future ourselves. And surely the material for responding can be drawn from further afield than friends, family and colleagues; reading novels, watching films and TV and exposure to social media will all provide us with a plethora of ways of answering the question ‘so if you woke up tomorrow the confident and self-liking version of yourself that you would like to be how would you know?’.
So is this how it works? When answering preferred future questions are people stitching together a collage of details drawn from a happier past, drawn from the lives of those around them, drawn from media portrayals of others who live the life that they want, drawn from the small things that do happen sometimes that people would want to see growing and drawn from a theoretical describing of the opposite of how things are now. And perhaps in the describing, in detail, as the worker invites the client to locate the changes into the reality of everyday life, the collage begins to take on a lived-life quality, it is experienced and becomes a first iteration of the preferred future.
So there are some thoughts about what might be going on but of course none of us can know for sure and we are merely ‘making it up’ just like the client does in their description. Do you have thoughts about how this works, what is going on as the client answers? I would love to hear from you.
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.
Ratner, H., George, E., Iveson, C. (2012) Solution Focused Brief Therapy: 100 Key Ideas and Techniques. London: Routledge
12 January 2020