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Impossible Hopes?


Many approaches to therapy or counseling make a distinction between ‘want’ and ‘need’. So if a client were to outline what he, or more probably she, wants from the therapy it would be legitimate on the part of the worker to raise the question ‘yes but is this what the client needs?’ Within those models that make use of this distinction this is a question that will be answered on the basis of the worker’s assessment of the client and their situation. Solution focus does not make this distinction. It is a client informed approach within which the key questions, that will determine the direction of the work, are ‘so what are your best hopes from this, how will you know that coming here has been of use to you?’ The worker in solution focus is ‘de-centred’. What is it that the client wants is the issue, not what does the worker think that the client should want. Thus it will be the client who will determine the preferred outcome for the piece of work. However this is not always a straightforward process. What if the client’s answer to the ‘best hopes’ question is not possible? What would the worker do in these circumstances is a question that is often asked of solution focused practitioners. Interestingly this question is asked much more often than any difficulty occurs. When we ask clients what their ‘best hopes’ for our work with them are it is unusual for the client to respond with an impossible outcome. Clients are, in the large, markedly realistic in their responses.

The Common Contract

Harry Korman from Malmo has popularized the idea of a common contract in the solution focused world. A common contract he states has three necessary conditions: it should be something that the client wants to change or to achieve, it should be something that fits with the legitimate remit of the worker and it should be something that the client and the worker, working well together could hope to achieve. Included in the legitimate remit of course is the requirement that the common contract should be working towards an ethical outcome, for in whose job would it be legitimate to work towards the client’s suicide or harm to another person? So by and large it is only the last of the conditions, feasibility, that can occasionally cause some difficulties and there are a number of ways of thinking that help to sort those difficulties out.

Problems and limitations or life-situations The way that the idea problem is constructed demands the possibility of a potential solution. A problem is defined as something that potentially has a solution and a solution as a state of being within which the problem is no longer dominant. The solved state, the preferred future, demands that the problem be transcended. Problems and solutions demand the possibility of each other. Following this line of thought we can then consider how a situation that is uncomfortable but for which there is no solution is to be thought about. If the situation cannot be solved then one way or another it is something that will have to be lived with. A situation that has to be lived with might better be described as a life situation. And of course if life situations are to be lived with, then we can live with them with greater or lesser comfort, with more or less cost to our daily lives. Life situations can be coped with, managed or got through but cannot be solved. The question therefore that faces the solution focused practitioner is how to talk usefully with the client who appears to confuse a problem and a life situation. In order to clarify this it will be easiest to take an example. Let us imagine a client who, when asked about their preferred future, answers by stating that a past event would not have happened: ‘for me the only thing that would make a difference to my life is if the abuse had never happened’ or ‘for me the only miracle would be if my mum had not died’. Clearly no therapy can rewind and rewrite the past. However deeply felt a wish, and however strongly the client believes that nothing can be different if this vital event cannot be changed, yet these descriptions of preferred outcomes cannot of themselves lead the client into a new and different future.

Two possible routes.

In these situations the therapist has two clear routes that she can take with the client one that is more challenging of the client’s position and another that works more closely with the client’s preferred outcome. Both start with an acknowledgment ‘however much you might wish for that, I guess that it can’t happen? (Pause)’ Clients always respond to this by saying that their impossible preferred future cannot in fact happen.

The best you can hope for?

In the first route such a response allows the worker to build on the client’s response by asking ‘given that it can’t, how do you imagine that coming here can be useful to you?’ In response to this clients typically talk about how they will know that they are coping with their situation better. This can in turn lead to a new preferred future question: ‘OK so imagine that you are coping with everything in the best possible way for you, how will you know?’ Every response that the client gives in relation to this question is likely to be realistic.


An alternative track in such a situation is to inquire of the client ‘OK so that can’t happen. But if it could, how would life be different for you?’ When the client responds to this sort of question by saying that ‘I’ll be getting on with my life again, I’ll be more active, have more energy, be more alive’, these are all things that are potentially possible for the client despite the loss, despite the trauma, despite the difficulties that the client is facing. ‘So if you found yourself getting on with your life again even though nothing can change the events of the past, would that make coming here worthwhile?’

Events and effects

The key distinction that it is useful for the worker to keep in mind is that no therapy can change the events of a life only the effects of those events. Thus in relation to a loss it is not the loss itself that we can work with, merely the change in the sense of self, the reformulation of a life that is consequent upon the loss. It is, interestingly, directly to this that the client moves when invited to reflect on ‘and if it were to be possible’.

A note on bereavement

In the context of bereavement, particularly when the loss occurred some time ago and the client is not moving on, most clients will have been the recipients of much well-intentioned advice which one way or another is indicating to the client that now is the time to resume her life. By definition when a therapist is meeting with a client in this situation the advice has not proved effective. In these situations it sometimes appears to be the case that the client perceives a dilemma. Loyalty to the lost person is important but means that the client remains stuck, whereas moving on might be attractive, and everyone is pressing for this, but it is perceived as coming at the cost of loyalty. In such circumstances framing questions that transcend the client’s either/or dilemma, questions framed in both/and terms are often useful. An example of this might be to ask the client ‘Imagine that you are living a life that does you justice and does justice to your relationship with your partner. How will you know that you’re doing that?’ It is imagining that picture and the client making moves to make it a reality in his life which will open possibilities.

Evan George

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