Solutions Focus Approach

by Paul Z Jackson

The future perfect

The future perfect is a rich and detailed description of what is wanted or of life without the problem. So how do you get a description of what success will be like?

By establishing a future perfect, you

  • Provide direction for your project
  • Motivate and influence people – if the future is compelling, then they are more likely to be motivated to take action towards it
  • Get a detailed description of what people are looking for, therefore making it easier to identify it when it happens – perhaps even enabling you to notice parts of the future perfect that are happening already.

Eliciting a future perfect enables everyone involved to get a clear idea of what is wanted. And in creating such a full description, you may discover some useful adjustments to the platform. This can happen as you realise that what you thought you wanted turns out to be somewhat different to what you want now that you have considered the greater detail, with all its implications.

You can create a future perfect alone, in dialogue or in groups. You can also use the future perfect in a wide range of conversations. For example,

  • Checking with a client what they would want as the results of a successful project
  • Helping people to become ‘unstuck’ by asking them about life without their problem
  • Facilitating a senior management team to determine their strategic direction
  • Developing careers by asking a member of staff how you would know they were doing their job really well.

The miracle question

To get this detailed description of the desired future, you ask people to describe how they would know that things are happening in ways they want.

Imagination is everything. It is a preview of life’s coming attractions.

Albert Einstein

Coaches and facilitators often use the miracle question, first asked by Insoo Kim Berg when she responded to a client who, in exasperation, exclaimed, ‘Maybe only a miracle will help’. Berg and her colleagues soon discovered the immense utility of asking clients to imagine how life would be in an ideal situation.

Let’s take a look at the classic miracle question:

The miracle

Suppose...

You finish your day; go home; go to bed, and eventually you fall asleep... And while you are asleep a miracle happens... And the problem that brought you here has vanished.

But you’re asleep, so you don’t know the miracle has happened. When you wake up – what’s the first sign you notice that tells you that the miracle has happened?

When the question is answered, you can usually follow up by asking for more details, including

  • What do others notice that is different?
  • What are you doing?
  • What are others doing?
  • What else is happening?
  • How are people responding?
  • What else? Who else?

You can ask questions about what people are doing, seeing and hearing – building a description of what is going on between people and taking an interactional perspective on this ideal or miracle scenario.

Other ways to establish a future perfect

Now, in some settings you may feel talk of miracles to be inappropriate. No matter, there are many other ways to ask future perfect questions. Below are the most significant elements required for creating your own future perfect questions:

Suppose

Starting your question with ‘Suppose’ has the feel of a gentle invitation. You are not proposing any commitment, merely an exercise of imagination, a pleasant speculation. This makes it easy for others to join you for this visit to ‘suppose-land’.

The build-up

It helps to have some build-up to prepare for the moment when you ask people to describe life without a problem. You carry them along in your suppositional world with phrases such as ‘as you leave here today’ and ‘we finish this conversation’. They are easy to agree with and create a well-paced transition to give people time to adjust to and answer the question.

Time/space shift

Something that takes us from where we are to a time and space where things are how we want them to be... a miracle, or perhaps a holiday, a sudden end to a conversation, some time in the future, waving a magic wand. Your choice of how you present the shift in time and space may be as simple or as dramatic as you choose.

Noticing first small signs

What are they and others are noticing?

Here are two examples:

Example 1

Suppose... This conversation has been useful for you in some way.

You leave here and close the door – as you step back into the office, things are now how you want them to be.

What’s the first thing you notice that tells you this is the case?

Example 2

Suppose... You have at your disposal a time machine – you know, one of those boxes that travels in time. Suppose you get into this time machine and it takes you to a time and place where this problem has been solved.

As you open the door to the time machine and step out, what are the first signs you notice that it’s taken you to this new time and place?

Remember, you want to hear people describe in detail what they would be seeing/hearing/doing/noticing, so

  • Focus on tangible, observable change – what’s different
  • Look for small details, simple words, signs that would be visible to the rest of the world
  • Stay focused on what’s happening, by being present with the ‘here and now’.
Tip

If somebody says they are feeling something – for example, they may say that they are feeling happy – you can ask them, ‘What do others notice about you that lets them know you are happy?’ This converts the subjective feeling of happiness into a tangible, observable, interactional quality.

We have focused on asking somebody about their future perfect: it’s worth noting that you can also jointly build one – for example, a manager and a member of staff jointly agreeing what a ‘successful’ project would look like, or a team building a joint future perfect of what ‘excellent team work’ would mean for them and others.