Sunday, October 25, 2009


How often do I lecture a group of professionals on the value of using the language of “I hope”?
Pretty often, I guess. It is, after all, one of my favourite hope ideas. “Get things going,” I say, “by asking your clients to identify their hopes in the language of I hope. Get it out there on the table,” I say. “Find out what they are hoping for.” And though I’d hope to report that my lesson is well received with open minds by excited professionals who can hardly wait to go back to work so they can try it, well, I suspect the reality falls somewhere short of my hope.
Thinking about this brings to mind several related experiences from my past. In each experience, I was at a bowling alley, throwing wobbly misguided balls down the stretch. In each of the experiences, some well-meaning and overly optimistic on-looker left a comfortable seat to stand by my side. There would be words of encouragement to me, “A little coaching will fix this problem. Stand a little more to the left when you throw.”
To the left I would stand. Into the left gutter would go the ball. “Stand a little more on an angle,” the coach would say, adjusting my shoulders slightly after bringing me the next ball. Right gutter for sure.
“Bend your knees a little,” the patient coach would urge. A weak ball would wander down the alley, stopping somewhere near the end.
“Do exactly the same thing harder,” the coach would enthuse. Left gutter ball again.
And so it would go, for a while anyway, until the coach had exhausted all possibilities. All coaching considered, bowling balls are mysteriously independent objects when placed in my hands. Needless to say, I haven’t been bowling lately.
I work so easily in the language of I hope, as easily as some people work a bowling ball down an alley. My client files invariably contain lists of hopes, hopes we explore together, hopes that change over time, hopes that get discarded, hopes that flower brighter than spring lilacs, hopes I look back on time and time again. The conversations that generate hope lists are the foundational building blocks of my work. They support a structure of communication in which hope is an explicit ally as well as an implicit support. I nurture them. I cherish them. Just how others manage without a good list of hopes to get them started is surely a wonder to me.
“Use the language of I hope to start a discussion with your patients,” I suggest at a workshop with a mental health team. I give a few examples from hope lists I have known.
A doctor pipes up. “I don’t really see the value of these hopes,” he says honestly, but not unkindly. “I am hoping the patients will take medication and they are hoping not to take medication. How is that getting us anywhere?”
“Oh,” say I. “This is only the beginning of a much longer conversation. Once you’ve told them you hope they’ll take medication, you need to tell them why you hope that, to inspire their hope by letting them know what changes you expect to see when they start taking the medication. You need to help them understand the reasons why you are recommending it, the good results you see in their future. If they are hoping not to take medication, the chances are that they are afraid of something. Perhaps you can replace their fear with hope.”
A silence falls. A gap has opened up between me and the doctor. In this room in front of these others, I don’t know quite how to bridge it. It would take role-playing. It would take practice. It would take hard work for my ideas to inform his understanding. And so ends the conversation. It’s only a workshop after all.
I have a feeling that it will take a long conversation to make me a better bowler. Somewhere there’s a gap of understanding between the coaches’ ideas about my body position and my ability to imagine where the ball will go once it has left my hand. So far I’ve yet to launch a ball under the gaze of an optimistic on-looker who could truly make me believe it would be worth my effort to strike out on a journey across the gap. But I’d work at it—honest I would—if only more professionals would be willing to give the language of I hope a fair chance.

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