Posted on 07 March 2021
In 1990 Steve de Shazer during the course of an AAMFT Teaching Tape said “ . . . so I went off to learn how to do therapy magic à la Erickson and I’ve come 180º on that . . . the therapist doesn’t have the magic . . . the client has the magic and we’d better do something small and let the magic operate.” Steve knew, almost from the beginning of SFBT, that the client ‘has the magic’, and yet he never gave up using therapeutic tasks at the end of sessions and in our approach tasks were, with their carefully constructed pre-amble, involving the construction of a ‘yes-set’, the nearest to magic that the model ever got. I always had the sense that Steve just loved tasks and was fascinated by them and perhaps, at the same time, came to know that they were unnecessary and since at BRIEF we have given tasks up we have confirmed not just that they seem not to be necessary but actually that they might get in the way of us being effective. I was reminded of Steve and his tasks whilst reflecting on a number of questions that I just love, questions that I suspect might not be strictly necessary and yet which I continue to use.
Some years ago I was working with a woman, perhaps in her late 50’s or early 60’s, who had spent a significant part of her life living with addictions of various sorts that had got in the way of her making the most of her possibilities. For whatever reason when I met her she had clearly decided to make changes and over the course of a number of sessions she turned her life around in truly radical ways. Sitting with her while she made these changes was truly a privilege. During what was looking to be the final session, the client was so pleased with and so proud of the changes, that she found herself saying that she had changed so much ‘that I hardly recognise myself in the person that I have become’. I remember hearing her say that and I found myself worrying in a way that was quite unusual for me. The client was describing the change in terms of a seeming disconnect between the past and the present. She had, she seemed to imply, virtually become a new person. What I found myself worrying about was the possibility of a ‘flip-flop’. You could of course argue that these worries were none of my business, that they were a vestigial residue of my pre-SFBT way of thinking and conceptualising and that I should just have had confidence in her and her achievement. But there it was - I was thinking about ‘flip-flops’; if she could really see no connection between the present and the past then, I worried, if a crisis occurred might she flop back into her previous self. And so the question that I asked was this ‘of all the people who have known you well in your life who would be least surprised to hear that you have made these changes, who would say that they always knew that you could do it?’. The client began to think, and first a few tears rolled down her face and then she wept and after she gathered herself she said ‘Miss Miles’. Who I asked was ‘Miss Miles’ and my client explained that Miss Miles was a teacher at school who had taught her when she was 15, almost 45 years prior. And so I asked her what stories of my client’s life Miss Miles would tell if she were here with us today that would have been the basis for her confidence in my client’s capacity to turn her life around. And my client told stories, each of them evidencing the connection between my client’s 15 year-old self and my client some 45 years later.
Since that time I have asked that question ‘so who would be least surprised to hear . . . ?’ many times. The question connects the client with the often hidden and sometimes lost history of the preferred future, the elements of the client’s history that fit with the better present, inviting the client to construct a continuity rather than discontinuity, allowing the client to say ‘of course I was able to make these changes’. I sometimes think that what we are doing is moving with the client from a ‘big deal’ to ‘no big deal’ position. At first the change seems almost magical, how could it have happened, the changes seem almost ‘too good to be true’, ‘is this really me’. However as the client makes the clear connection back to a younger self through the perspective of the ‘least surprised person’ the change becomes expectable, obvious, natural and to this extent perhaps more sustainable.
This in turn reminds me of another client. I met with her on five occasions. During the course of our talking she let me know, in passing, a great deal about what she had lived through, violence, abuse, trauma, multiple hospitalisations and life challenges. And over that series of 5 sessions the client reported and indeed manifested huge changes such that after the fifth session the client said that she had no need to return. Naturally this apparently rapid change has worried some participants on courses who have voiced their scepticism, their doubt that the client could have made ‘real’ changes so rapidly, and have expressed anger with me and with Solution Focused Brief Therapy for accepting the client’s evaluation of the change, rather than challenging it and holding her into a longer term therapy. However for me the change was ‘no big deal’ – the person that my client became had always been there, just hidden from the world’s view, and during the course of our five sessions the client recalled a number of key moments in her life which fitted with the preferred future that she had seemed to build. What happened was ‘merely’ that the version of my client who had been present in those moments expanded and filled the rest of the client’s living. No I was not surprised!
22 November 2020.