SF Tips 2 “I don’t know”

Our job as SF practitioners, whether as therapists or supervisors, coaches etc. is to listen, listen really hard to the last thing that the person you are seeing has said. Then, and only then can you ask a useful question.

Supposing the person you are seeing says “I don’t know”….this phrase strikes fear into the hearts of new practitioners (and experienced ones sometime too).

I was lucky to see a demonstration of Elliott Connie confronting someone saying this over and over and it reminded me that “I don’t know” is a perfectly valid response for a number of reasons….

Firstly, they may not know the answer to the question you have posed…..yet. If the question you have asked is based on their last answer (particularly if was ‘best hopes’), then they will have an answer and they may be processing, thinking, considering…..we can ask again….and wait….or here is a great response after asking a couple of times “Imagine you did know, what difference would that make”?

They may also ‘not know’ because they have not been asked the type of questions that SF practitioners ask, they may be used to going into problem talk and the solution building talk that we use is quite unsettling at first sometimes.

The SF world is peppered with examples of responding to “I don’t know” and it would seem that for SF practitioners it is an easy situation, yet when first starting out on the SF road, it is a daunting response; a good rule of thumb after the first “I don’t know” is to just keep quiet and wait…..30 seconds is a long time in the therapy room, 2 minutes seems like a lifetime. In my experience the longer you wait for a response, the more likely some talk will come….as an example:

Pete (not real name) came into a drug service where I was working…at our initial interview he answered, as many people do that his best hope were to stop using drugs, I asked him what he would do after he had stopped using drugs, what would he be doing instead of using; this was a long time ago and now I might ask what difference it would make to him (first), anyway….he said “You know, just normal things, have a life”……I asked him what having a life would look like to him, he responded that he didn’t know…..I kept quiet, about a minute later (very long minute) he started to cry quietly, I said nothing, he said “That is such a weird question, because I have just realised that because I have used for so long (he was mid thirties and started using at 12) I don’t even know what a normal life is”……..I waited a little longer and asked again, with a slight addition “so, if you had a life that you would want to call normal, what might that look like, do you think?”….he said again that he did not know…..I asked him if I could ask him a question, a question that might help him think about that, he said yes and I asked the wonderful question (miracle question)…..now I am not saying all went well from there on in, but the ‘I don’t know’s’ were a lead into more talk…..and here is the point of all this, “I don’t know” is talking, it is a response, we need to honour that by following it.