What is the miracle question?
The miracle question is a technique used in Solution-focused brief therapy. It prompts clients to imagine an ideal state in which their therapeutic problem has either been solved or significantly improved. Thereby providing clues to solution in therapy. The miracle question is one of many techniques used to direct the client’s attention to possibilities rather than problems, as described in Bill O’Hanlon’s self-help book A Guide to Possibility Land.
The changes elicited from the question come from the client rather than the psychotherapist. Thus making it more likely that therapy will be a collaborative enterprise, rather than one directed by the therapist.
How does the miracle question work in therapy?
Solution-focused brief therapy assumes that most clients already possess the resources required to overcome mental health issues and life problems. It seeks to uncover the inner wisdom of the client.
Too often, clients get bogged down in worries associated with the problem-state: their ‘bad’ thoughts, unhappy feelings, repetitive habits, and general stuckness. The conscious mind is biased towards analysis (sometimes over-analysis) of problems and can develop negative thoughts that create a hopeless mind-set. This can make it difficult for them to imagine what change could look like.
The miracle question bypasses the critical mind and unveils what change would look like. Thus indirectly setting the goals for therapy. From there therapists and clients can focus on implementing changes, leaving the problem-state behind entirely.
The miracle question draws on our creative intelligence: our innate capacity to re-imagine the future in a way that provides forward movement in work, life and relationships.
Miracle question examples.
One version of the question asks clients to imagine they have woken up to find the problem has disappeared:
“Imagine that you wake up tomorrow morning and find that, overnight, a miracle has occurred. You are now free of the problem in a way that you never thought could happen. What is the first thing you would notice about yourself?”
In other versions of the same question, clients can be asked to imagine that the therapist waves a magic wand (an ironic inversion of the myth that therapists are the sole originator of change). Or coming to the end of therapy and the hoped-for miracle has happened. Or travelling in a time machine to some point in the future where things are different.
The origin of the miracle question goes back to Milton Erickson’s use of the crystal ball technique in hypnosis. In that technique clients are asked to imagine looking into a crystal ball in trance, seeing themselves as they will be after the problem has been solved. Then describing the specific changes they can see.
More questions about the miracle
Once the main question has been asked, more questions can be asked to elicit further information:
- What else do you notice about this new you?
- What do other people notice about you?
- What is different about the way you think? Feel?
- When you do X (problem area) what has improved?
- What are you doing now that you weren’t doing before?
- What could be the first step towards creating these changes?
A case example
Jack, a man in his mid-twenties presented with social phobia, in which he became anxious about meeting new people in public. He experienced mild panic attacks whenever he attended parties, or social gatherings in bars, usually triggered by thoughts that others there were more successful than he was, and viewed him as an inferior. His mind would go blank on meeting new people, and he found it impossible to think of anything to say. This made his anxiety worse to the point where he felt he had to leave.
Whenever he received an invitation he would spend weeks torturing himself about what was likely to happen. Yet he badly wanted to improve his social network, and also had hopes of meeting a new partner some day. By the time he came to therapy he had stopped going out altogether, except with one or two trusted friends.
A case history was taken, and it was noted that Jack’s job required him to make presentations to clients and work colleagues from time to time. Although he felt nervous about doing this, he usually managed to get through the ordeal without difficulty. He commented that this was because he knew what to say in advance, having spent weeks rehearsing it.
It was explained to Jack that social phobia of this type was common in young people, who generally grew out of it as they gained more experience in social interactions. That his mind, his brain and his nervous system were superbly equipped to acquire new learnings, and to adapt to many hundreds of problems in life. Therapy would focus on establishing the best way for him to learn to handle a crowd.
He was asked:
“Imagine that you are some time in the future, and you and I have succeeded in finding a way for you to be more comfortable around new people in your social activities. In some mysterious way you already know what to say in advance, and your difficulties have now been left behind. What will you notice about yourself when that happens?”
Jack contemplated the answer for a few minutes, before saying that what he saw surprised him. In his mind he saw himself several years older, doing a lot of things his father would do. Moving first on people he knew, and chatting with them, before shaking hands firmly with those introduced to him. Doing a lot more listening than talking, and focusing on other people rather than on his own thoughts. He said there was a flow to socialising that he hadn’t seen before, and that no more work was required than to join in the small talk when it came his way.
His father was a shy man, but he was always at ease with himself, even while standing on his own. Jack saw, also, that he was using a trick learned from making presentations: to ask lots of questions of those attending. Finally, he commented that it was rather like a job interview: first you might feel tense but, as things unfolded, you found a rhythm that would carry you along in the conversation.
On the basis of these answers several learning goals were agreed.
Introducing oneself to people (including the hand-shake). Being sure to have at least one person he knew amongst those invited.
Tolerating discomfort and staying in present moment awareness when isolated
Developing a rhythm in speech and movement
Defusing from anxious thoughts, and refocusing instead on other people
Rehearsing answers to questions about himself (utilising what he had learnt so far from making presentations)
Getting tips from his father, and other people he knew who were good in a crowd.
Tips on using the miracle question for yourself.
- Pitch forward to a moment some time in the future. A few months ahead is common, but you can go forward a year or two if you like.
- When employing the miracle question be sure to stay out of the analytical mind. Instead, go into a playful, creative state. Make it fun to do.
- If short of ideas, imagine you are someone else rather than you.
- Focus on what you (or your avatar) is thinking, feeling, saying or doing. Not on what others are doing.
- Look for ‘surprising’ changes you don’t expect. Those are often the most fruitful. If the answers are too predictable, then ask the miracle question in a different way.
- Write down the changes that you see and turn them into learning goals.
If your goals are complex, consider employing a coach or therapist to assist you in completing them.
The miracle question can be employed on almost any mental health issue: anxiety, stress, depression or addictions, etc. But you may need professional help if the problem feels overwhelming.
It can also be used to consider changes in behaviour and motivation: insomnia, dealing with difficult people, improving a skill (including sports), job interviews, eating habits, handling an overload of work or responsibility.