Many of you will be familiar with this much quoted interchange between Alice and Humpty Dumpty in Lewis Carroll’s Alice Through the Looking Glass:
There’s glory for you!’
‘I don’t know what you mean by “glory”,’ Alice said.
‘Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. ‘Of course you don’t–till I tell you. I meant “there’s a nice knock-down argument for you!”’
‘But “glory” doesn’t mean “a nice knock-down argument”, Alice objected.
‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean–neither more nor less.’
‘The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean different things–that’s all.’
‘The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be master–that’s all’
Many fewer people are familiar with the continuation of the dialogue where Humpty Dumpty uses the word “Impenetrability” and when Alice asks “what that means” he responds:
‘Now you talk like a reasonable child,’ said Humpty Dumpty, looking very much pleased. ‘I meant by “impenetrability” that we've had enough of that subject, and it would be just as well if you'd mention what you mean to do next, as I suppose you don't intend to stop here all the rest of your life.’
‘That's a great deal to make one word mean, Alice said in a thoughtful tone.
‘When I make a word do a lot of extra work like that,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘I always pay it extra.’
‘Oh!’ said Alice. She was too much puzzled to make any other remark.
‘Ah, you should see em coming round me of a Saturday night,’ Humpty Dumpty went on, wagging his head gravely from side to side: ‘for to get their wages you know.’
In the light Humpty Dumpty’s statement the question that I have been pondering is which Solution Focused words deserve to be paid extra ‘of a Saturday night’. One obvious and very deserving candidate in my practice is the verb ‘to notice’. It turns up repeatedly in the questions that I ask:
‘who will be first to notice that you have a little more energy?’,
‘and what will (your partner) be noticing about you that will be evidence for her/him of ‘a little more energy’?’,
‘and what difference will you notice the ‘spring in your step’ making to you as you are walking towards the park?’.
‘and what will you notice about the way that you say ‘good morning’ to the other dog-walkers in the park that could be a clue for them that you have a’ little more energy’, that you are enjoying ‘the spring in your step’?’,
‘and what might they notice about you as you say ‘good morning’ to them that . . . . ?’,
‘and how will you know that they have noticed?’.
The verb ‘to notice’ turns up again and again in the formulation of my questions. It is not the doing that is at the heart of my questions but the noticing of the doing. The doing, it seems, is nothing without the noticing. This fits with the philosophical conundrum based on George Berkley’s, A Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge (1710), "If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?". It seems to be that it is in the noticing of the doing, that the doing can become ‘information’, “a difference that makes a difference” as the British anthropologist Gregory Bateson put it (Bateson, 1971). At the heart of our work in the Solution Focused approach is ‘attention’. We are working with people’s attention, inviting them to shift their gaze through the questions that we ask, and in this process the verb ‘to notice’ is crucial to me.
However, as deserving as this word might seem to be, ‘to notice’ is probably not the best paid come Saturday night. At the very front of the Humpty Dumpty Solution Focused queue at the end of the week we find the words ‘what else?’.
‘What else?’ really are modest little words compared with the verb ‘to notice’, and yet they have to work hard in SFBT, and as they work they bear on their shoulders a weight of meaning and responsibility. So on what grounds do ‘what else’ deserve their wages?
1. Frequency. ‘What else?’ is the most common question asked by SF practitioners.
2. Centrality. ‘What else?’ is the basis for the generation of detail in people’s descriptions and generating detail is central to what we do.
3. Engagement. Through the skilled and appropriate use of ‘what else?’ people experience SF practitioners as truly interested in them, interested beyond their first answer, beyond their second answer, often beyond their tenth answer.
4. Belief. In SF we can only ask questions, indeed it is only ethical to ask questions, if we believe in people’s capacity to work with those questions. To ask a question not believing in people’s capacity would be to set them up to fail and to do this would be cruel and in my view unethical. So ‘what else?’ also means ‘I believe in your capacity’.
So, in my view, any words that are not only the most frequently used, but are also central to a change process, serve to engage people in that process and convey belief in people’s capacity deserve every penny (or cent) that they get. So well-done to ‘what else?’ and thank-you.
And for those of you who do not know the Nursery Rhyme Humpty Dumpty here it is:
Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall,
Humpty Dumpty had a great fall.
All the king's horses and all the king's men
Couldn't put Humpty together again.
Bateson, Gregory. The Cybernetics of ‘Self’: A Theory of Alcoholism (1971) in Psychiatry vol. 34, no 1, pp1 – 18.
25th August 2019