This post touches on the same themes I addressed in my previous post ‘A Matter of Life or Death‘. I hope it reflects how my thinking has developed.
Asking a client “what’s been better?” is a typical way for a solution focused practitioner to begin a follow up meeting.
I received a powerful reminder of why this is recently.
A client had seen me and several of my colleagues over consecutive or near consecutive days during an apparent suicidal crisis. In between contacts with the client, we were all saying things to each other like “they’re in a really bad way” and “they’re really struggling”.
When it came to my turn to see them again, I had a brief moment of doubting whether “what’s been better?” would be an appropriate opening question, given how much we all knew they were in a really bad way and struggling.
…Then it occurred to me that we didn’t know that at all!
Nobody knows how someone else has been since they last met, even if other people have told them what their impression was when they saw that person during the interim. This is because the only information to go on is an interpretation of a third party’s description of their perception in a moment that came and went, which represents a tiny proportion of the other persons experience.
By asking “what’s been better?” we’re at least entertaining the possibility that a corner might have been turned, even if only fleetingly, perhaps unwitnessed by others at the time. In actual fact, it’s more than a possibility, it’s a certainty, because we know that experience is inconsistent. It just doesn’t always seem that way at first glance.
In reference to state of mind, nobody can possibly know how someone else is right now if that person is not in front of them. Even then, they can’t actually know, because perception is always subjective. The closest anyone can get to knowing is through their own interpretation of verbal and non-verbal language, filtered by their own assumptions, experiences and expectations. Attempting to know is therefore inherently futile, so not likely to be particularly useful.
Also, there’s no accurate way of knowing what the future holds. The only thing we can know with any real certainty is that everything changes. That’s the definition of the passage of time as we perceive it.
By asking about the moments in which our clients experienced/might experience preferred changes, and what was/might be different about them in those moments, especially about the part they played/might play in constructing and sustaining the change that took/might take place during those moments, we’re amplifying their skills, resources, solutions and their reorientation towards the life they hope to live.
An alternative, less solution focused question could be “how are you?” or “how have you been?”, and this type of enquiry may conform more with cultural norms. We can ask this and still listen to the reply with a solution focused ear, catching references to better moments. The reason why we opt for the less conventional “what’s been better?” is that it’s more direct. It’s also literally safer to assume that relatively better moments have occurred and choose to ask about those moments. Those are significant moments in the client’s life, most aligned with the direction of travel towards the life they hope to live. Opting to focus straight in on the safest moments by asking directly about them is the more efficient use of time, given that our intention is to maintain and cultivate safety. “How have you stayed safe?” would be an alternative solution focused question. However, it’s possible that things have improved for the client to such an extent that staying safe is now a given, and they’ve moved on to even better progress. We wouldn’t want to inadvertently disregard such progress, so a more general enquiry is preferred (we could always ask that as a next question, should their reply indicate that safety is still their primary concern)
…So, armed with this perspective and a decision to trust the process, I asked the client “what’s been better?”
And their reply?
… (after some thought) “Quite a lot actually!”
We went on to discuss how they had achieved this progress and what their next step would be.
They could have said “nothing” or even “nothing, it’s worse”, in which case we could have talked about how they stopped it from being even worse, how they held on to enough hope to keep going sufficiently for us to be talking with each other again today, and what would be the signs to look out for going forward that indicate that things are getting better again.
In any case, the point is I can’t possibly predict an account of the past any more than I can predict the future, and the present is equally subject to perspective, so in order to have a useful conversation with someone who has talked about struggling to stay alive, the most appropriate questions for me to ask them are those about the moments in which their struggle results in them staying alive and heading towards a better life. Not so that I might attempt to know anything, but simply so that their answers might provide useful insights for them about how and why they’re doing that.
“What’s been better?” is a very good start to a conversation like that.