ACA Blog

John Sommers-Flanagan
Dec 04, 2012

Secrets of the Miracle Question in Counseling: Part I

You might want to sit down because this could take a while.

Developed in the 1970s by Insoo Kim Berg and Steven de Shazer, the miracle question has become a very popular therapy intervention. It’s standard fare for solution-focused therapists and has been written about extensively. In 2004, Linda Metcalf wrote a whole book about it and in 2010 Ryan Howes of Psychology Today declared it the #10 most “cool” intervention in psychotherapy.

To be honest, I have mixed feelings about the miracle question. Although I’ve used it with clients and found it helpful, I’ve never found it the least bit miraculous. It’s a good and clever question that helps clients focus on goals. But it’s no miracle.

My biggest problem with this cool intervention is the use of the word miracle. Miracles are, by definition, highly improbable, highly desirable, not explained by natural causes, and typically ascribed to divine intervention. Wow. That IS cool...

Using the word miracle to describe a common goal-setting question is excellent marketing. The only thing better might have been to call it the secret miracle question. But as I write this I hear the voice of Rich Watts in the back of my head muttering something about how everybody steals the work of Alfred Adler without giving him credit. Rich is President of the North American Society for Adlerian Psychology. My inner Rich Watts voice is noticing that the miracle question looks a lot like “The Question,” an intervention used and written about by Alfred Adler in the early 1900s. Adler’s version went: "How would your life be different if you no longer had this problem?” Again, good question, but no miracle. And hardly anyone (other than Rich Watts and his Adlerian buddies) ever mention The Question anymore.

If I dig a little deeper, what I find most problematic is that the word miracle leads counseling students and practitioners to adopt one or more of three false beliefs. They begin believing that the miracle question is: (a) a simple procedure, (b) easy to learn and implement, and (c) that it can result in a miracle. Sadly, none of these beliefs are true.

An example from popular literature might help. Think about how long it took Harry Potter to learn the Tarantallegra spell. In case you can’t recall, the Tarantallegra spell forces one’s opponent to dance. I don’t know long it took the fictional Harry Potter to learn the fictional Tarantallegra spell, but I’m certain that even in the fictional world created by J. K. Rowling it wasn’t during his first year at Hogwarts.

The miracle question name erroneously implies something quick and easy and miraculous is happening. Sort of like snapping your fingers and reciting that Tarantallegra incantation. You can try it that way, but it won’t work...because you won’t be manifesting an understanding of the incantation. I’ve seen novice counselors try the miracle question and the most common client response elicited is: “I don’t know.” This is because counseling miracles require sophisticated language and delivery skills, a solution-focused mindset, and education and experience.

The miracle question is all about sophisticated verbal behavior. We should recall that Berg and de Shazer were strongly influenced by the renowned hypnotherapist, Milton Erickson. This is one reason why, when done well, the miracle question resembles a hypnotic induction. Even de Shazer and his colleagues noted that it might take an entire therapy session to ask and explore the miracle question (see the book, More Than Miracles).

Although many published variants of the miracle question exist, below I’m including a detailed version, as described by Insoo Kim Berg and Yvonne Dolan in Tales of Solutions. As you read through this example, remember: The miracle question should be spoken slowly, there should be repeated pauses, and the therapist should deeply believe in the solution-focused principle that all clients already possess the inherent competence to produce positive changes in their lives. Here’s the question:

I am going to ask you a rather strange question [pause]. The strange question is this: [pause] After we talk, you will go back to your work (home, school) and you will do whatever you need to do the rest of today, such as taking care of the children, cooking dinner, watching TV, giving the children a bath, and so on. It will become time to go to bed. Everybody in your household is quiet and you are sleeping in peace. In the middle of the night, a miracle happens and the problem that prompted you to talk to me today is solved! But because this happens while you are sleeping, you have no way of knowing that there was an overnight miracle that solved the problem [pause]. So, when you wake up tomorrow morning, what might be the small change that will make you say to yourself, “Wow, something must have happened—the problem is gone!” (Berg & Dolan, 2001, p. 7, brackets and italics in original)

If you’re by yourself, you might want to go back and read through the miracle question again. This time read it aloud. Think of a small problem of your own and freely insert a few references to it.

Technically, the miracle question is a projective or generative assessment tool and hypnotic induction strategy. This is because it asks clients to project themselves into the future and generate information or scenarios straight from their imaginations. Together, counselor and client create a virtual reality and then try to make it a reality. This is where I agree with fans of the miracle question: That’s one cool intervention.

Part II of this deconstruction and exploration of the miracle question will be posted next week.

John Sommers-Flanagan is Professor and Acting Chair of the Department of Counselor Education at the University of Montana. For more information on counseling, psychotherapy, parenting, or clinical assessment, check out his blog at johnsommersflanagan.com.

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