September 14, 2010

Better Past Talk

Following up on the previous two posts (Building a Bridge between the Better Past and a Better Future and Better Future Talk), this post focuses on how you may help your client develop a clear picture of the better past. The better past refers to situations in which things were already going better or were -at least- less bad. Identifying these types of situations generally strengthens one's hope and confidence that more change will be possible and usually provides some specific ideas about how to proceed.

The usefulness of better past talk: When a client has identified a situation in the past in which he or she has done something that worked well this thing that worked well may be tried again. We call this thing that worked well an internal solution because it is a solution which is found within the experience of the person himself or herself. Internal solutions work so well, because they 'fit' in the sense that the people involved (1) know how to apply them, (2) have the skill to apply them, and (3) trust in the relevance and effectiveness of the solution. That internal solutions fit so well creates a sense of ownership, which makes it easier for people to restart using them and to keep on using them. Focusing on internal solutions is focusing on what is already there, instead of what is not there. It is based on the assumption that the person or organization has the resources available to be successful. It is an appreciative way of looking at individuals, teams and organizations. It implies they are already good.

What is meant by 'better past'? An assumption of the solution-focused approach is that the intensity of problems and successes will always fluctuate constantly. There will always have been situations in which the problem was less intense and when things were better, even if only slightly so. It might be useful to understand that better past situations may be either a) exceptions to the problem: these are situations in which the current problem was less problematic or even temporarily absent, or b) earlier successes: these are situations in which the success the client wants to achieve was already happening, at least to some extent. The Youtube video below illustrates this idea of finding solutions in fluctuation.

Why will there always be examples of better past situations? Solution-focused practitioners hold the assumption that whenever a client wants his situation to become different there will always be past situations which were better. The presence of a desire for change is a reflection of the fact that the person has an awareness that a better future is possible. This awareness that a better future is possible is rooted in the experience the person somehow has with better situations. The idea is that whenever a client turns out to be able to define a desirable future he or she does so by tapping from positive memories. After all, how can we desire for something we have no knowledge of? In other words, positive memories are building blocks of desirable future scenarios. There is some scientific support for this claim.

How to elicit better past talk? In general, you can help the client to identify past successes and or exceptions to the problem by asking questions like: 
  • When have things already been a bit better?
  • Have you ever been able to solve such a problem in the past?
  • Have you ever experienced a situation which was a bit like the situation you want to achieve?
  • When was the problem not happening?
  • When did the situation bother you a bit less?
When you and your client have identified one of these situations, you encourage the client to tell more about it. You can do this by asking questions like:
  • What went right in this situation?
  • What was different in this situation?
  • What made possible for things to go better?
  • What was your own role in this success?
  • How did you make this happen? 
  • What worked especially well?
What can you try when clients find it hard? Sometimes eliciting useful examples of these better past situations is not very easy. Here are some suggestions for three types of challenging situations:
  1. The client can't seem to find any examples. In some cases, clients may say something like: "Better? I wouldn't know.... I think it has never been better!" If this happens this does not mean there will have been no better past situations. Instead it is an indication that these better situations in the past have become rather 'invisible' or hard to retrieve for this client. Also, it can be a sign of the client wanting to let you know how serious his or her situation actually is. What you may do in such situations is, first, to normalize, which means showing that you find it normal for him or her to say this and to not be able to find an example right away ("I can imagine you can't find an example right away, it's a hard question"). Then, you may encourage the client to take some time to search for an example. Usually it helps to make your question a bit 'smaller' ("It's alright if you take some time to think about this question. Is there an example of a situation that was just a bit better?"). What you do is wait patiently and encourage the client to take as much time as he or she needs. 
  2. The client finds an irrelevant or irreproducible example. Sometimes, clients come up with past situations that were better but which seems irrelevant for what the client wants to achieve, for instance because the situation is irreproducible. This may be the case when a client says something like: "A situation that was better was when my boss was on his vacation." There are at least two good options you have in this situation. First, you may explore whether this apparently useless past success situation can be useful after all. For instance you may ask what was better in this situation and what the client could do in this situation. If this process leads to the identification of some positive behavior descriptions of what the client did, there is a good chance that the client might get some ideas from it, after all. Second, you may build on the client's answer by trying to refine it. For instance, you may ask: "Sounds good. And have there been any small examples of situations in which your boss was not on vacation but which were still a bit better?"
  3. The client remains unable to find useful examples throughout the conversation. In some exceptional cases, clients remain unable to identify any examples of better past situations. This does not have to be a problem at all. What you can do is to normalize and to acknowledge whatever the client says. Then, what you can do, at the end of the conversation, is to give the client an observation suggestion. Here is an example of how the observation task can be formulated: "Could you, between now and our next conversation, pay attention to situations in which things are a bit better? When you notice that things are better, could pay close attention to what is different in that situation and to what you do different yourself? If you try to remember what is different when things are better we can talk about it next time we meet". The observation task often has a surprisingly strong effect. The question makes them notice more consciously what goes right in their lives. Usually, this helps them become more optimistic and gain more confidence.

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