Michael Hjerth and Chris Iveson are always very kind to each other whenever the debate arises as to how the term ‘preferred future’ originated, as both very generously pays credit to the other. However I think that when all the collegial politeneness is done we might perhaps conclude that Michael came up with the term and that Chris saw the value in it and promoted it. (Iveson, 1994). Nonetheless one way or another this term has found its way to the heart of Solution Focused practice to such an extent, that just like the term ‘best hopes’ (George et al., 1999), many authors no longer feel the need to reference it! Of course the ascendancy of the phrase ‘preferred future’ has coincided with the increasing marginalisation, the virtual disappearance in our work of the term ‘goals’ so perhaps we can start from here with a few thoughts on the origins of the ‘preferred future’.
‘Goals’, ‘solutions’ and ‘preferred futures’.
If we read the early texts on Solution Focused Brief Therapy we will find repeated references to ‘goals’ or indeed ‘well-formed goals’ (Berg & Miller, 1992). For example in Clues (de Shazer, 1988, p 93) Steve de Shazer writes ‘Without goals, therapists and clients cannot know when the therapy has succeeded or failed’. ‘Goals’ in this sense represented for Steve a set of criteria, a means of judging the success or failure of therapy. Some years earlier, in the Milwaukee team’s seminal paper ‘Brief Therapy: Focused Solution Development’ (de Shazer et al., 1986 p 215) we find the same idea ‘it is important for everyone involved to know how they will know when the problem is solved and therapy can stop. Without a goal, any therapy could become a life-long endeavour’ and de Shazer then adds ‘concrete goals are an important part of our evaluation program and are a necessary part of our follow-up or outcome studies’ thereby confirming the ‘criteria’ idea.
However from the very early days of Steve’s work there is another concept, another idea lurking, and it is this idea that has come to the fore-front and finds its embodiment in the ‘preferred future’. In the same early paper Steve writes, under the heading ‘Solutions’, ‘clients often talk in vague or global terms when asked directly about concrete goals. We have found that it is frequently more useful to have a conversation about how the clients will know that the problem is solved and what will be different once the problem is part of the past . . . The more alternate futures or alternate solutions are talked about, the stronger the client's expectations of change will be’ (pp 215 – 216) and he concludes this paragraph with ‘talking about possible alternate futures when the complaint is no longer a complaint helps to create the expectation that change is not only possible but inevitable’ (p 216). In other words, he suggests, focusing on ‘possible alternate futures’ in itself makes a difference; we are not only establishing criteria, there is a therapeutic effect. This idea is expressed repeatedly in Keys (de Shazer, 1985) the first exemplum turning up in the preface (p xvi) ‘In order to readily prompt solutions, it is useful to develop a 'vision' or description of a more satisfactory future, which can then become salient to the present. Furthermore, once this "realistic vision" is constructed as one of a set of possible, achievable futures, clients frequently develop "spontaneous" ways of solving the problem’. Later when discussing the ‘Crystal Ball Technique’ de Shazer (1985) writes ‘the crystal ball technique is used to project the client into a future that is successful: The complaint is gone. I have found that simply having the client, while in a trance, view his or her future in a crystal ball or a series of crystal balls can be enough to prompt different behaviour, thereby leading to a solution’ (p 81).
de Shazer’s thinking about ‘possible alternate futures’ or ‘a . . . description of a more satisfactory future’ is a clear precursor to the BRIEF team’s focus on the ‘preferred future’ with Steve reporting, almost a little puzzled, that just doing this can lead to ‘spontaneous’ change, without the requirement for the ‘tasks’ and exception finding that were at this time central to his work. And indeed that has been our experience and has led us to develop this element of the work into much more detailed descriptions than were characteristic of the Milwaukee team where the ‘solutions’ elicited from the client were typically relatively brief and ‘broad-brush’. Describing the preferred future in detail makes a difference.
1. What are we describing?
It is important to remember that in Solution Focused Brief Therapy it is the client’s answer to the ‘best hopes’ question that legitimises our following questions. Thus we are not inviting clients to describe their ideal future or a perfect day or some unanchored miracle happening for them – ideal futures or perfect days are none of our business and to invite the client to describe theme would be intrusive and impertinent. What we are inviting the client to describe, when we ask the Tomorrow Question (Ratner et al., 2012), is the life that contains the ‘best hopes’, the life transformed by the best hopes happening, and of course the ‘best hopes’ are circumscribed, they are defined solely in relation to the therapy. ‘So if you woke up tomorrow and you were happy (the client’s best hopes response) what is the very first thing that you would notice?’. We are asking the client to describe the life that they would be living were their best hopes to come to pass.
2. Suggestive of possibilities.
It is equally important to remember that none of us can know what we will do tomorrow, that none of us can know for sure what will be the first signs of difference that will alert us to change happening. Thus when we are inviting clients to describe their preferred future we are not inviting them into a world of certainty, we are not action planning, we are not devising strategies or determining what they should do. The description itself is the point and we have no idea what relationship this description will ultimately bear to what the client ends up doing. The language of our thinking is provisional rather than contractual – the client is not going to be ‘held to it’ and yet the describing of the preferred, as Steve de Shazer knew, makes a difference. Holding the preferred future description lightly is one of the major challenges in our Solution Focused practice rather than seeking somehow to tie down, to limit or to restrict the client’s possibilities.
3. The ‘second order’ distinctions
Sometimes when the client begins to describe their ‘tomorrow that contains the best hopes’ their response can resemble a list of actions. I’ll get up, I’ll get dressed, I’ll have breakfast, I’ll get to work early, I’ll be productive and get lots done’ and so on. Whilst these responses are useful for me they are useful because they provide the conversation with a structure, a scaffold for eliciting more subtle differences. Let’s leave for a moment the getting up and getting out of bed and focus on arriving at work and being productive. There are many small, detailed ‘second-order’ questions that we can ask that bring the best hopes difference into the heart of life:
‘So what might be different about the way that you walk into the building on a (best hopes answer) day?’ and ‘what might you notice about the way you are walking up the steps to the lift (on a best hopes happening day)?’ and ‘what might you be thinking as you stand waiting for the lift?’ and ‘what might the other people in the lift notice about the way that you say good morning?’ and ‘what might you notice about the way that you greet your team . . . and what might they notice about you?’ and ‘as you walk towards your office what might tell you that it is going to be a . . . day?’ and ‘what might you notice about the way that you turn on your computer on a ‘going to be productive’ day?’ and ‘when a member of your team knocks at your door after just three minutes of work what might they notice about the way that you respond to them . . . ?’. It is these detailed answers that make the description real so that the client can virtually pre-experience the preferred future happening, creating a pathway, a memory, a familiarity.
4. Bringing the preferred future to life.
And finally we need to remember the three dimensions of preferred future descriptions.
We ask about the client’s perspective, other people’s perspective and then we invite the client to bring the description alive by describing the ‘inter-actional’ context.
‘And if you were to offer him a cup of tea, would he like that?’
‘How would you know that he liked it?’
‘Because he would smile at me and I’d hear it in his voice?’
‘And do you like it when he smiles and responds with that tone of voice?’
‘so how would he know that you liked it?’
‘Because . . .’
Our lives are lived and experienced in interaction and Solution Focus brings these changed patterns of interaction right into the talking, into the client’s description.
At the end of the 1986 paper the Milwaukee team write ‘In this essay we have proposed a particular conception about the nature of solutions to the kinds of complaints clients bring to therapists. We have described our brief therapy approach to developing solutions and have presented some of our results. Clearly, this is not the final report. More clinical research and formal research needs to be done as important concerns remain’ and then they pose the question ‘What construction of the brief therapy situation will evolve that is more useful than the one we propose here?’ (p 220). Steve de Shazer and colleagues were always clear that the model that they developed needed to be constantly changing and evolving. I believe that they would be pleased that the process of change is continuing and that people across the world are continuing to shape and develop the model building on ‘the shoulders of giants’.
Berg, Insoo Kim and Miller, Scott (1992) Working with the Problem Drinker: a solution focused approach. New York: Norton.
de Shazer, Steve (1985) Keys to Solution in Brief Therapy. New York: Norton.
de Shazer, Steve (1988) Clues: Investigating Solutions in Brief Therapy. New York: Norton.
de Shazer, S., Berg, I.K., Lipchik, E., Nunnally, E., Molnar, A., Gingerich, W., Weiner-Davis, M. (1986) Brief Therapy: Focused Solution Development. Family Process. 25: 207-221
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
Iveson, C. (1994) Preferred futures, exceptional pasts. Presentation at EBTA Conference, Stockholm.
Ratner, H., George, E., Iveson, C. (2012) Solution Focused Brief Therapy: 100 Key Ideas and Techniques. London: Routledge
26 July 2020