April 10, 2008

The 'What's better?' question

One of the well known solution-focused interventions is the 'What's better?' question (De Shazer, 1986). This question is mainly asked in follow-up coaching sessions (second and later sessions) with clients. The advantage of the 'What's better?' question is that it helps the client to focus on which progress has been made in the past period and on what has worked well. This usually has a motivating effect, often leads to more awareness of what works and to useful ideas about further steps forward. To make the 'What's better?' question as useful as possible, it may be worthwhile to remember the following points:

1. Dare to ask the question as simple as it is. Many people who first hear about the 'What's better?' question (this includes me) are first a bit reluctant about using this slightly strange question. They think it's a bit awkward (”Isn't it more normal to just ask HOW things are going?") and they fear their client may think the question is strange, too. Well... to be honest, the question is a bit strange indeed. But the thing about is .... it works amazingly well. Years ago, when I was trying to master the basics of the solution-focused approach, I tried to finds ways around the 'What's better?' question in order to try to find a more 'normal' alternative ("Did any interesting things happen since our last conversation?"). But after some time I dared to try out the simple 'What's better?' question. And I was really surprised about the power of the question. Along the way, I discovered that this question really refers to the essence of the coaching process: realizing progress, how do you do that?

2. Ask probing questions about each example. The value of the answers to the 'What's better?' question is enhanced when you, as a coach, ask probing questions. You keep asking until the situation is described so concretely that is easy to see what happened, what was good about it and how the person has managed to accomplish it. Much more important, however, than that the coach understands this is that the client see this concretely. The questions of the coach are a tool to accomplishing this.

3. Repeat the question (OFTEN).
The interesting thing with the 'What's better?' question is that you repeat it often ("What else is better?").Usually you don't just ask it 1,2, or 3 times, but rather 6,7, or 8 times. The surprising thing often is that client indeed manage to mention as many examples as that (encouragement by the coach is important of course). Also, coaches are often surprised to find out that sometimes the most interesting examples of what's better are not the first or the second ones that are mentioned. Sometimes, already 6 examples have been mentioned and then, suddenly, the client mentions a very important improvement, also to his or her own surprise (”Gee, I forgot that has happened but it is actually really important."). On a video tape I once saw a client who mentioned something like 35 things that were better. While the conversation proceeded his smile got bigger and bigger.

You may ask
: "but what do you do when the answer is 'Nothing is better!' or 'I have no idea'?" Coaches who want to ask the 'What's better?' question are sometimes worried that their client will answer like that or that they may even say: "What is better? Nothing's better. Everything has gotten worse!” Or that they may be irritated about the 'strangeness' of the question. In answer to this, I like to say two things. One is that although these things may indeed happen, in the majority of the cases they tend not to happen. Most clients do need a few seconds and some encouragement but then, they actually started mentioning improvements. A second thing is that EVEN when the client responds 'negatively' at first, the question may later turn out useful after all. I once had a client who indeed said, with some desperation in his voice: "What's better, things are going WORSE!" Of course, he and I talked about the problem that had happened. After 10, 15 minutes we closed this topic and then I dared to ask, with a curious look in my eyes: “And are there also some small things that are better?” I was a little surprised when, after a few seconds of thought, the client began, with a smile on his face, to give an example of something that had been better. After that, another example followed until he had finally mentioned 6 or 7 examples. Then he said “So, you see, I am really on the right track!". I thought to myself: "Gosh, what an amazing question is the 'What's better?' question."

1 comment:

  1. I've also had examples where the client said "Nothing is better" which provided a good place for a coping question, "How did you manage to handle such a rough week so well?"

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