Monday, August 24, 2009


Hope-setting. It’s one of the things I enjoy most in the daily grind of counselling. It’s inspiring. It’s surprising. It’s mind-expanding. It gets things off to a comfortable start and focuses the work toward the future. I like it, and the files don’t lie. I really am better at it than I ever was at goal-setting.
When I think of how easy it is to organize a counselling relationship around the hopes of a client I just can’t believe that everybody doesn’t do it. I’ve been looking at hope counselling files this summer. As I look at each file I see a group of clearly documented hopes. “I hope to feel more joy and less anger.” “I hope to do things that make me proud.” ”I hope to find satisfaction in my marriage.” These are the hopes on which the work of future sessions is founded.
Hope-setting. It’s a simple process on the surface of it. You sit down with a client, have a chat, and ask for sentences that begin with I hope. Then you write them down for present discussion and future reference. When I say the process of hope-setting is easy, I guess I don’t mean REALLY EASY. Like anything worth doing, it takes a pint of commitment on the counsellor’s part, and a quart of discipline to keep doing it until it feels natural. People are skeptical when you first begin.
“Oh, I don’t think I can do that,” they say. Between us hangs the unspoken fear. If the fear could speak it would say,”My problem is so big that it’s beyond hope.” But when you press for hopes, big or small, realistic or not, you eventually get hopes.
When I say that the process of hope-setting is easy, I really mean that it is easier for me than the process of goal-setting. This is evidenced by the files which show that I do get to hopes, reliably so, and early in the process. My record on goal-setting was not as good. Looking back, I can see how I got into trouble. When I was a fledgling counsellor, intent on learning how to do it properly, I applauded the authors and teachers who advised me to set goals and objectives early in the process. I am, after all, a practical woman, and how can you expect to accomplish something if you haven’t agreed on the thing you want to accomplish? So I would set up an objective-setting conversation.
Me: ”I would like to set some objectives for our work together. It will be easier for us to get things done if we both know what we’re trying to do.”
Them: “Okay.”
Me (the you-first approach): “What would you like to accomplish?”
Them: ”I want to deal with my anger,” or ”I want to increase my sense of self-worth,” or—and this one is a real stinker—”I can’t think of anything we can accomplish unless my wife is willing to sleep with me.”
Let’s face it. Future-focussed though I wanted to be, I found that I really wasn’t very good at goal-setting. I wanted to do it early in the counselling process, and I couldn’t get it to feel right. I wasn’t exactly sure how to deal with anger, and I didn’t feel I could promised to increase anybody’s sense of self-worth. As for getting a wife to sleep with an unhappy husband, well, the best I could do was change the subject. Vowing to set goals it later, I’d wander off in other directions, only to find that once you start exploring the conversational caves, losing yourself for hours in the tunnels and blind alleys, it’s generally easier to abandon the idea of goal-setting entirely. When it came time to impress professors with student papers I’d look back at my files, desperate to find one where goals had been documented and achieved. Ultimately I’d end up disappointing myself by basing my papers on files where no clear goals had been set.
Imagine my relief when I found there was a future-focused alternative! Rather than goals, I could work with hopes. There are a few factors that make hope-setting easier and more desirable than goal-setting. You can get hopes earlier than you can get goals. What’s more, you can get more of them, and as you are getting them, you only have to hope for them. You don’t have to promise to achieve them.
There are, when you think about it, some basic and important differences between hopes and goals. Hope is an emotion, while goal is a thing. Counselling is emotional work. That is why so many people come to us seeking a cure for anger, an injection of self-worth, an antidote for unhappiness. Goals by their nature—so concrete, so tangible, so objectively measurable—have a hard time finding a comfortable place to flourish in counselling, where the talk tends to be about emotions. It is easier to start with emotions in counselling that it is to start with things.
Hopes relate to wishes, while goals relate to intention. This basic difference permits us to have more hopes than goals. We can hope to visit India some day and enjoy a flutter of pleasant feeling as we say it. But if our goal is to visit India, then we are more apt to say we plan to visit India. Once we’ve said that, we have to start working on it. This makes it easier to have India as a hope rather than a goal. It is easier to wish than to plan. Keeping the future in mind, you can set hopes sooner than you can set goals.
Hopes are imaginative while goals are action-oriented. This important difference shows itself most clearly when we get down to the work of nurturing hopes and goals. When we nurture hopes, we delve into the imagination, try to make it bigger, strive to expand the number of future possibilities. When we nurture goals, our focus is on achievement. We try to be realistic. We narrow the field of possibilities based on a concept of realism. Given the tools available to us at the early stages of a counselling relationship, combined with our limited knowledge about what is realistic for this person, it is easier to nurture the imagination than to nurture commitment to action.
One additional factor makes hope-setting a better first choice than goal-setting. Hopes prefer to take their place ahead of goals. They like to be leaers. When you express hope by saying I hope, you are pairing a feeling with a future possibility and the way you feel tends to influence the way you act. . In fact, it is best to feel hope first if you’ll need to invest a lot of energy on the hard work of achieving a goal. What kind of fool would document a goal and commit to checking on its progress without any hope of achieving it?
When I look at the hopes jotted down on the early pages of a hundred files I see that they are bigger than goals, softer than goals. Emotional and imaginative, they point toward a desirable future not entirely in the control of the hoper. In one file I read: ”I hope to be respected, not just treated as one more case file.” The hoper, as I recall was not talking directly about the relationship that was developing between him and me, but I do recall how it set the tone for the way I thought of him, the way I spoke to him. He had so many obstacles to deal with, so many decisions to make. What he hoped for was to be respected as he stumbled along the journey.
In another file I read: “I am hoping to get a job where I can be happy. ”I am hoping to get a job where I can contribute something. I am hoping to get a job where I can have positive input into situations. I am hoping to get a job where I can stay for a long time. I am hoping to get a job where I will be safe from the possibility of injury.” These hopes, I recall, were the hopes of a man who was not looking for a job at the time, and would not be in a position to do so in the near future. He had, in fact, been sent to me so that he could ”deal with his anger.” By the time I met him I was no longer worried about dealing with anger. I told him we’d get to it eventually. First, though, I was wondering if he had any hopes he’d like to share. And that’s how he got to telling me about his hopes for his next job, which is what led us on a journey of imagination, and gave us the imspiration we needed.

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