When we invite people to describe the preferred future we are not inviting them to describe a dream or a fantasy – we are inviting them to describe something real and in our view the ‘realness’ matters.
So how do we define the Preferred Future? We think of it as the client’s everday life transformed by the presence of the ‘best hopes’ and in the presence of the ‘best hopes’ everything is indeed transformed. So when we use the ‘Tomorrow Question’ (Ratner, et al., 2012) the client is waking up in the same house, surrounded, or not, by the same people, with the same job, or not, and facing the same challenges. In that sense everything is the same and yet at the same time everything is different.
Let us imagine that the client’s ‘best hopes’ are to ‘feel more confident and to like myself more’, then we could just ask ‘imagine that you wake up tomorrow morning and you are happier and you are liking yourself more what is the very first thing that you might notice?’. However if, before asking the ‘tomorrow question’ we pop in the question ‘So at what time are you likely to wake up tomorrow?’ and the client responds ‘ at about 8.00’ we can then ask ‘OK imagine that you are waking up tomorrow at about 8.00 feeling happier and liking yourself more what is the very first thing that you will notice?’. Inserting the context ‘at about 8.00’ begins to ‘make it real’. Very often people answer the question by saying something like ‘I will feel like getting up’ and we might respond with ‘and what difference will that make, waking up and feeling like getting up?’ and the client might say ‘well I’d get up straight away rather than lying in bed hiding from the day’. So at this point we might insert more of the ‘real’ into the description ‘and what is the first thing that you might do when you wake up at 8.00 on a day when you are feeling happier and liking yourself more and feeling like getting up?’ and the client might respond with ‘I’d go downstairs and make myself a cup of tea’ and we might ask ‘what sort of tea?’ and the client might respond with ‘oh just builder’s tea’. ‘So as you are making your cup of builder’s tea just after 8.00 on a day when you are feeling happier and liking yourself more, a day when you felt like getting up, what will you be noticing about yourself as you make that cup of tea?’. The client answers and we then ask ‘what will you do then?’ and the client might answer ‘well I might take the cup of tea back to bed but I’d enjoy taking my time and thinking about the day to come’, ‘and what’ we might ask ‘will you be noticing as you walk upstairs, back to your bedroom, with your cup of tea in hand?’ and the client might talk about the feel of the carpet under his feet and so on.
It is clear that the questions we ask are inviting a much denser and richer description than merely ‘I’d get up and make myself a cup of tea’, inviting a level of detail which allows the client to step into the description, almost to pre-experience the unfolding of this different morning. Quite why this detailing, this pre-experiencing, might be important is difficult to say and yet it does seem to make a difference. If those in our field who are neuro-scientifically influenced are correct and the brain does indeed find it difficult to distinguish between that which is imagined in detail and that which is ‘actually’ experienced, then their phrase ‘making memories’ can begin to make sense to us. Describing in detail might be thought to construct a potential pathway, a familiarity ‘I have done this and can do it again’.
However talking with a client the other day rather enriched my thinking about this. I first met with the client some months ago and had heard indirectly that the session had made a substantial difference and had been appreciated. During the second session the client confirmed the changes and added something interesting. The client said that, having described in ‘real’ detail a day transformed by the presence of the ‘best hopes’, each time she now found herself doing those things that had featured in her description, the ‘best hopes’ experience was triggered. It had not previously occurred to me that this might be the case. I had had all sorts of thoughts about the usefulness of detailed description but I had never thought that a series of mundane doings, for example making a cup of tea, doings which had become the ‘container’, the context for the ‘best hopes’ description, could themselves become ‘triggers’, serving to elicit, to draw forth the desired experience, the hoped for feelings. As usual most of our best learning comes from our clients!
And now it remains to be seen what difference in my practice this idea might make.
Ratner, H., George, E., Iveson, C. (2012) Solution Focused Brief Therapy: 100 Key Ideas and Techniques. London: Routledge
15th November 2020.