April 17, 2011

What can you do when clients describe an unrealistic desired scenario?

Pooja asked me the following question: "I wanted suggestions on following: I sometimes get stuck when the client gives a desirable scenario but says it is an impossible scenario".

Some suggestions:
It is not uncommon that clients start off saying things that are not so realistic or helpful and then, with your help, gradually start talking in more constructive and realistic ways. In fact, this is a common pattern. Usually, several things help. By going slowly and following the client's perspective all the time, clients are encouraged to explore their views and wishes further. When someone says something unrealistic like: "I'd like to win the lottery", there are several ways of responding which all may work well. One is: "Sure, you'd like that, who wouldn't?", and smile. Often clients will then proceed to more realistic scenarios. Another one is: "Imagine that would indeed happen, what would then be possible for you? What could you then do?" This one often works well too. With the desired situation it helps to keep asking until the client starts describing positive behavior of him or herself in the future. When clients themselves say of their scenario: "But that is impossible" you may just wait and/or encourage them to talk on. The most likely thing is they will proceed to describe something that is more realistic. Or you may invite them in that direction, for instance by asking: "What might be a more realistic scenario?"

These are not even your only options. You may, for example, also make your desired situation question a bit smaller by asking something like: "How will notice that you are starting to move in the right direction?", or "What will be a first small sign of improvement?" This type of question often works well with clients who feel stuck. It is often relatively easy, even for these clients, to give some specific answers to such questions and it is actually hard to give answers which describe grand, idealistic and unrealistic scenarios.


  1. Who is to say the scenario is unrealistic! Who knows what is, is not realistice/attainable if we think well into the future.
    History is full us stretch goals that some didn't tnink were possible and someone else accomplished it.
    There is real danger to the proposer - and to society - when we squelch peoples dreams because we don't think they are possible. See Robert Fritz in "The Path of Least Resistance."

  2. Hello Peter,
    True. I have a few thoughts on this. First, I agree that we may think too soon that something is unrealistic. If something is theoretically possible, who is to say it isn't also practically possble? Second, some things are actually impossible ("What I'd really want is that my colleague were still alive"). Third, as a solution-focused coach, you never have to say to clients their desired situation is unrealistic or impossible (even if it actually is). As you see in the post none of the suggestions I offer are of the kind of telling people their goals is unrealistic. My assumption is the solution-focused process can best be done without any confrontational or directive comments even when clients say things that are unclear, negative or (possibly) unrealistic

  3. I'm neither a coach nor have solution focused approach background, but if you don't mind my thoughts, here is my approach when I'm facilitating technical problem solving.

    To me it is critical to encourage every perspective in the initial stages of figuring out what is going on.

    I don't mean when the reactor is scramming, then there are procedures to follow and we hope we survive long enough to get to root cause analysis later. I mean when there is confusion as to what is actually going on and we are not in imminent danger.

    The first step is a situation appraisal, and at that point every viewpoint is listened to and recorded, with emphasis on what people observed and the significance they think it has. But the point is that everyone has their own story and no one's story is rejected initially.

    Here's the trick, we trust the process to filter out the stories that were based on misunderstandings or unrealistic expectations about what is supposed to happen.

    So I definitely tend to apply the principle of not judging initial scenarios as unrealistic, but I also work to make sure the processes I use tend to filter out unrealistic expectations without having to rely entirely on individual subjective judgments of what is realistic.

    This leverages the collaborative power of groups, but it could also work with an individual and a coach I think.

  4. If a client sets a goal and then sees it as unrealistic I usually do the following. I ask him/her to hold the goal in the future because it is too early to know if it is realistic. Instead I ask them to set interim goals on the same path that are attainable and take the necessary steps to achieve them.

    Over the years I have had clients attain their "unrealistic" goals by having many solution focused successes along the way. They have had to grow into what they want for themselves and when they have done that what was once unrealistic becomes naturally achievable.

  5. Hi Todd, Thanks for your comment. I thought I had already responded to it but it seems that's not the case... (sorry).

    I like these three words a lot in what you say and they apply so much to SF: "we trust the process"

    Very well put, I think

  6. Dear Kristina,

    Thank you for your comment! This souns very good. I believe this growing into goals often happens and I think your approach works.


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