Janet Bavelas, one of our field’s greatest subversives (and researcher, author, speaker and innovator), tells of some comparative research highlighting a difference between Steve de Shazer and a leading practitioner of a person-centred approach. Both use the expression “uhu” to punctuate the client’s words. When each “uhu” is recorded on a graph the person-centred therapist’s “uhu”s are pretty much identical while de Shazer’s “uhu”s each look like a different word. This would suggest that the person-centred therapist’s “uhu”s are coming from a script in his own head (maybe based on the idea that it is a means to keep the client talking without the therapist giving anything away) whereas de Shazer’s “uhu”s are responses to what the client has just said, and as each thing just said is different so are his responses even if each one is spelt the same way. It is the difference between listening to learn and listening to hear. In the former we are collecting information from which to build our assessment of the problem and the possible interventions that might solve it and when we do ask questions it is mainly to fill the gaps in our knowledge. When we are listening to hear we are more directly engaged with the client; rather than collecting information to fill our own requirements we are fitting our questions to the client’s last answer, wherever that might take us, in the hope that somewhere along the line the client will produce an answer that begins to change their world.
One level up from “uhu” is perhaps the single most important question in our model: “What else?” We are frequently challenged even about the propriety of asking “the same” question over and over again. We would love to have Janet’s machine at these times just to check if it is the same question. If we analysed a run of ten “What else?”s and did find them invariable then our critics would be right: we would have been applying a technique in a mechanistic and insulting way, more interested in exerting the power of the question than hearing and appreciating each answer.
Each “What else?” should appear in a different form on Janet’s machine because each “What else?” is a shorthand for an infinite number of different questions and as each one of these questions leads to a different answer then each “What else?” must be a different response. Typical starting points for these potentially infinite chains are “What have you done to keep on the side of life through all these years of hardship and misery?”; “What are your ways of being a good parent despite what others think?”; “If your teachers were to see who you really are what would they discover about what you have to offer not only the school but to the world?”; “What are you good at in your job?” They are infinite in the sense that we are not yet (and maybe never will be) cognisant of the whole of personhood, we cannot fully know ourselves or others, however much we know there is always more. As a survivor, a parent, a student or a worker we bring our entire, and to all intents and purposes infinite, selves to the party.
The full version of “What else?” and what makes it a different question each time is “What else as well as (here insert the list of every answer that has gone before) have you done to stay on the side of life?”.