The question that we ask does not of course determine the client’s answer, even though it will undoubtedly make one answer more likely than another. For many years I asked people, at the beginning of follow-up sessions ‘so how have things been?’ and many people responded by saying that things had been difficult. Having made the change many (many) years ago to asking a different opening question in follow-up sessions, namely ‘so what’s been better since we spoke?’, many fewer people now respond by saying how difficult things have been and many more respond by describing what has been better. And since I have taken to warning people at the ends of sessions, in a friendly way of course, that ‘when you come back the very first question that I will ask you will be ‘what’s been better?’ so if you start watching out for better, it will make your next meeting easier for you’, even fewer people respond by telling me that things have been really difficult. And yet of course some do, some people respond by saying ‘nothing’s been better’ and they are right to do so since at that moment they cannot recall noticing anything that has been better. So the question is a good question, the client’s answer is a good answer, and the practice challenge for us is what do we ask next, what do we ask that takes account of the client’s response and yet remains Solution Focused. Here are a number of possibilities.
When the client responds by saying ‘nothing really’ this is not quite the same as ‘nothing’. Another version of this is ‘nothing much really’. These responses seem to me to suggest that actually there may have been some small things that have been better but that they have been small and have seemed largely insignificant in the face of the difficulties experienced. We can take account of the client’s response by asking ‘so what has been even a tiny bit better?’ and the client might respond with a ‘well I suppose . . . ‘. We have indicated to the client that for the purposes of this conversation even really small changes are of relevance, even if they do not seem to the client to make a huge difference, and that we are inviting the client to get their magnifying glass out!
‘Nothing at all’ – version 1.
Here there is no doubt about it, no equivocation. Nothing has been better. And yet oddly enough if we manage our tone during the question we can ask a seemingly contradictory question ‘can I just ask you this – what did you notice in the days immediately after our last session, that may have been a little different, even a little better, perhaps’. In those circumstances when people report ‘nothing’ it is nonetheless not unusual for people to have noticed a small change, perhaps even more than one, in the day or days immediately after the last session. Naturally the change, the ‘better’ will have been forgotten, or will have been seen as insignificant when it failed to persist. Inviting the client to identify these changes and to ‘unpack’ then typically appears to be useful.
‘Nothing at all’ – version 2.
An alternative response to ‘nothing at all’, is to invite the client to take a transitional step, ‘so even though you haven’t noticed anything that has been better, what have you been pleased to notice since we last spoke?’. This question is gentler, softer than the invitation into ‘better’ and often people can recall many things that they have been pleased to notice even though initially it seems to them that nothing has been ‘better’. Naturally as we invite the client to focus on what they have been ‘pleased to notice’, how they have done that, what they have learnt about themselves in the process, and what they would like to see expanding and growing in their life, we can also ask ‘and is that a tiny bit different or is that something that you have always been able to do?’. During these conversations differences that are moving in the direction of the client’s preferred future not unusually emerge in the talking - small ‘betters’ in other words!
‘Nothing at all – it has been dreadful’ – version 1.
Here the client goes beyond merely stating that nothing is better, adding that they have had a really tough time. This additional comment potentially invites us to shift the focus of our response. Of course everything rather depends on the client’s tone. It may still be possible to ask ‘so what have you been pleased to notice even though nothing’s been better and it’s been dreadful?’. Equally it might still be possible to ask about the day or days after the last session. However if either of these questions feels ‘rude’ in the sense of truly ‘ignoring’ what the client has just said then we may wish to shift the focus, for example asking ‘so would you mind me asking what you have been pleased to notice about the way that you have kept yourself going in the face of dreadful?’. There are fine decisions to be made here and it is not possible to specify a typical response, merely to suggest a number of possibilities, leaving us to choose the phrasing and the tone that makes sense in relation to what the client has said and how they have said it.
‘Nothing at all – it has been dreadful’ – version 2.
An alternative response might be to acknowledge that the client’s response is a potential ‘game changer’ that the ‘best hopes’ (George et al. 1999) are no longer intact and to enquire ‘I am sorry to hear that things have been dreadful, so can I ask what are your best hopes from this meeting, what might tell you that this conversation has ended up being of use to you?’. Particularly when a crisis has happened it may well be somewhat crass to assume that the client’s focus is unchanged, and a ‘best hopes’ question allows for the possibility of a re-focusing of the conversation in the light of events.
And here is the joker . . .
Sometimes when the client says ‘nothing’ we can ask ‘OK then - tell me 35 things that have been better since we last met’. This response would seem at face value to be absurd, perhaps even insolent and dismissive, and yet it does not seem to have that effect. Asking for a somewhat ridiculously large number of things changes the rules of the conversation. Clients not surprisingly are initially focused on big and important changes but as soon as we ask for 35 changes, as Denise Yusuf once patiently explained to me, the rules of the conversation have now been changed, and now even the tiniest of changes become grist to the mill of the conversation. It is also not infrequently the case that as the client begins to ‘list’ (Ratner et al., 2012) a series of small changes, larger and perhaps more significant changes come to mind!
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
Many thanks to Tania Taylor for pointing out to me, after I had wasted quite a lot of her time searching, that I have never written anything on this topic despite my fervent belief to the contrary. So belatedly here are some thoughts Tania.
31st October 2021