Varieties of the miracle question

The so called “miracle question” is the crux of solution-focused therapy. The miracle question was, so they say, originally invented by Insoo Kim Berg. The story goes that Insoo came up with the idea as she was responding to a client who said “That would take a miracle” when asked to describe her future life without the problems that brought her to therapy.

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Here is how the Milwaukee team formulated the Miracle question. As you read the question, keep in mind that the therapist is supposed to phrase the question with a bit of drama and intensity to awaken the client’s imagination.

“Suppose our meeting is over, you go home, do whatever you planned to do for the rest of the day. And then, some time in the evening, you get tired and go to sleep. And in the middle of the night, when you are sound asleep, a miracle happens and the problem that brought you here today is solved just like that (the therapist might snap his/her fingers at this point to add a bit of drama). But since the miracle happened overnight you don’t know that the miracle has happened. When you wake up the next morning, how are you going to start discovering that the miracle happened? … What else are you going to notice? What else?”

The miracle question can be seen as a modification of a hypnotherapeutic technique invented by Milton Erickson and described in his paper entitled “Pseudo-orientation in Time as a Hypnotherapeutic Procedure” published in 1954 in the Journal of Clinical and Experimental Hypnosis. In this fascinating paper Erickson presents five clinical case studies in in which he asks the clients, who have been hypnotized, to imagine (or hallucinate as he puts it) vivid future scenes where the client is over his/her problem and able function normally.

To induce this kind of positive future projections in his clients, Dr. Erickson would, for example, ask the client to picture one or more crystal balls in front of him, and then to see scenes, or short movie clips, on these crystal balls of himself in the future when the problem is over. For example, a man who has never courted a woman in his life, might see a scene playing on the crystal ball where he is asking a woman out for a date, or someone afraid of heights might see a scene of himself enjoying standing on top of a high building.

My intention In this article is to show you that as a therapist you can ask the miracle question in a myriad of ways. You can always find a way of asking this question in a manner that fits you, the situation, as well as the people you are working with. What follows is a selection of examples of different ways of formulating the miracle question:

1. The magic wand

Suppose I had a magic wand by waving my wand I could make this problem disappear, just like that (therapist waving an invisible magic wand). As you go back to school / work / to your family, how would you notice that the magic is working?

Insoo Kim Berg recommends the use of the magic wand modification question instead of the standard miracle question when working with small children who may not understand the concept of a miracle.

2. The snap

Suppose I had some superhuman powers and simply by snapping my fingers like this (snaps fingers) I could make your problem disappear (or I could give you the skill or ability you need), and all I would need to do is to simply snap my fingers like this. If this was possible, what would be the first opportunity for you to test if the snap works? Give me an example of a situation in which you would be able to find out whether the problem is gone or not (or whether you possess the skill or ability you need).

3. The follow-up

We have not yet decided when to have a follow-up meeting for this project but let’s say, for the time being, that it will take place in two months from now. What I would like to know from you is what would you be telling in that meeting supposing you’d all be convinced that this project has been a truly successful one.

This question is particularly suited for working with teams and organisations.

4. The present

Christmas is only two months away. Suppose this year Santa Claus would bring you a special Christmas present that would make you happy and improve the quality of your life considerably. It would not be a book, or slippers, or something like that. It would be some change in your life. What would that present be? How would it influence your life?

5. The coincidental encounter

Suppose I meet you in town next summer in one of the cafes at the market place, perhaps the one with the red plastic tables and chairs. You know that one? You’d be there sitting and having a cup of coffee. Or do you prefer tea? I would notice that you look happy and I would come over to you and I would ask you how you are doing. You would say that you are doing very well indeed; that you are happy with your life and how things are going. I would naturally become curious and so I would ask you to give me some details. What would you tell me?

6. Through the grapevine

Suppose I bumped into your mom (husband, wife, brother, friend, boss, doctor…) some day, say just a couple weeks from now, and she would tell me that things are getting better with you. I would be all ears. What do you imagine she would tell me?

7. Hypothetical hypnosis

Suppose I was a hypnotist and I would be able to hypnotize you and give you a post-hypnotic suggestion. Do you know what a post-hypnotic suggestion is? (explains and gives a few impressive examples). Ok, so, what kind of a post-hypnotic suggestion would you want me to give you supposing I was able to hypnotize you? (client makes an attempt to answer) Supposing I was a hypnotist, I would probably ask you to be more specific. I would need you to be precise in order for me to be able to find the the right wording for my post-hypnotic suggestion. What would you say? What specifically would you want me to tell you? And if indeed I did give you that post-hypnotic suggestion and it would work, how would you find that out? Can you think of a way of testing whether the suggestion works or not? What would be proof to you that it indeed works.

8. Supernatural ability

Suppose I could give you a prescription of very special potion that would give you an almost supernatural power to do exactly the things you need to do in order to overcome your problem. What kind of an almost supernatural power would you need to overcome your problem? And once you had that power – ’cause you would have drunk the potion in the morning – how would you handle the situation? I’d like to know the whole story including the minute details.

9. Surprise me!

Suppose you’d decide to surprise your family by doing something that for them would indicate that you must be making real progress. What would it take, what would you need to do, to take them by surprise and get them thinking that something promising is taking place?

10. The treatment

The client says they are going to start some treatment, or therapy. The therapist responds by saying, ‘suppose this treatment you are talking about will be helpful to you. It is not impossible. As you say, many have been helped by this treatment. So suppose you will be one of them. What will be the first sign for you that the treatment is having an effect? What would be further indication for you that indeed, the treatment has made a major difference in your life?’

11. The injection

Did you know I am a doctor? Being a doctor I can give you injections. Suppose I would give you an injection that would give you the strength and ability to do whatever it is that you need to do to overcome your problem. Would you like that? Would you say yes to such an injection? The injection would be effective and it would not have any side-effects apart from a little soreness on your shoulder muscle right after the injection. How soon would you be able to find out if the injection is working? What would you need to do? What would indicate to you that the injection is indeed working?

12. The miraculous brain

The brain has an almost miraculous ability to heal itself from horrible experiences. This process is already under way. When you look back at your life a year from now, you will probably be surprised at the changes that you have gradually made during this time. Where, in terms of your recovery, do you hope to be at that point in time? What would indicate to you that indeed your brain has done the job for you.

13. The clairvoyant

Suppose I was a clairvoyant. You know, a person who has the gift of seeing the future. I would have a crystal ball here in front of me (leans forward pretending there is a crystal ball on the table) and by looking deep into the ball, I could see you in the future and you going about your business at some point in time in the future. Now I don’t pretend to be a clairvoyant, I don’t even know if it’s possible to see into the future, but if I was a clairvoyant, and I indeed had that ability, so what would you hope that I would see in my crystal ball for you? You would be happy for sure but where would you be? With whom would you be? And what would you be doing?

What do you do after the miracle question?

The miracle question is not meant as a stand-alone question even if it alone sometimes seems to bring about positive changes in clients. In order for it to yield therapeutic effects, the miracle question, as a rule, needs to be bundled with further questions the aim of which is to help the client discover strategies for making their miracle description come true.

Suppose one day, in the not too distant future, I would write another blog on solution focused therapy and you would find that blog especially useful. What do you imagine would be the theme of the blog? :)

Takaisin
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