The Brief Therapy Network News. Vol. 2, Issue 4, 2003
Lighting the Smallest Candle! – A Conversation
with Yvonne Dolan
Tapio Malinen & Scot Cooper & Ian Bennett
Yvone Dolan M.A. constructs training in Solution-Focused
and Eriksonian therapy troughout the U.s, Canada, Europe, Souh
Amerika and the facific Rim. In addition to Resolving Sexual
Abuse: Solution-focused Therapy and Ericksonian Hypnosis for
Survivors (W.W.Norton), A Path With the Heart: Ericksonian Utilization
with Resistant and Chronic Clients, One Small Step: Moving Beyond
Trauma and Therapy To a Life of Joy, and numerous journal articles,
she has recently c-authored Tales of Solution: A Collection
Of Hope Inspiring Stories (with Insoo Kim Berg) and Miracles
Happen: An Agency´s Journal To Becoming Solution-focused,
(with Twerry Pichot). After a quarter of century in the field
she loves her work and it shines through in the following conversation
that took place at the 2002 Brief Therapy Network Conference
in Toronto following Yvonne´s first presentation.
Tapio Malinen (TM): Yvonne, today you are here
with us, and tomorrow you will be doing your presentation in an
different place here in Toronto, and some day you will come to
Finland and I know you are doing lots of things. I wonder what
is the dream that gives you all the energy to do all the things
that you are doing just now?
Yvonne Dolan (YD): Well, I believe that we each
have a responsibility to do the best we can and what I seem to
be best at is learning from my colleagues, and learning from my
clients, then writing it down and talking about it. I feel that
I have a responsibility to do what little I can do to make a difference.
I always think about my grandmother! There is a saying that was
made famous by Eleanor Roosevelt. She used to say, “It is
better to light one candle than curse the darkness”. We
each should do what little things that we can to make our little
space as good as possible but for my grandmother, for her it was
too big. So she would say “you know, we can only do what
we can do so better to light - even if it is only a little tiny
candle you are lighting - the best candle you can light, even
if it is just a little tiny candle”. So I feel that I am
lighting the best little candle I can light. Mostly it is from
learning from other people. I try hard to share what I learn.
I think we are all sort of a chain. We all are connected. So I
guess I feel like I am part of a big old quilt.
Scot Cooper (SC): I enjoy your quilt metaphor!
Who would you say speaks through you the most in your work? Perhaps
it is many people who are a part of that quilt?
YD: I have been very lucky! I have been helped
by many wonderful people at different times in my career. Steve
de Shazer has mentored me for almost the past 20 years, as has
Insoo Kim berg. I have also been significantly influenced by Stephen
Gilligan and early on, by Jeff Zeig. Ernie Rossi is someone who
has powerfully affected how I see the process of eliciting client
resources. Those are the folks who have made a huge difference
for me. And of course there are more! I could probably take up
this entire hour just listing the people in this field to whom
I owe a debt of gratitude. And then afterwards I would feel ashamed
because I had left somebody out!
TM: How has your thinking and approach changed
since your time with Steve de Shazer? What caused you to make
YD: Before learning about Steve and Insoo´s
work, I originally was interested in Ericksonian utilization and
I had written a book on that topic in the early 80´s. I
was fascinated with Dr. Erickson’s work in making therapeutic
use of what the client already had. So I was already primer to
appreciate Solution-focused therapy. After becoming familiar with
Steve de Shazer and Insoo Kim Bergs’ work as well as Eve
Lipchiks’ I began to be even more aware of the impact of
language. I found I needed to use hypnotic techniques less often.
I started using Solution-focused questions whenever the client´s
goal was something that the client could consciously choose to
support with behavior. At the same time I began to experiment
more and more with the indirect aspects of Ericksonian language,
as I began to recognize that questions can function as implicit
invitations to therapeutic change, and meaning is implient by
what the therapist doesn´t say as well as what he or she
does say. Foe example, if we do not ask the client about the future,
do not even mention the future, the implication could be that
it´s not worth much! And that would be an awful message.
I was originally attracted to the Ericksonian approach and then
to the Solution-focused approach, I think, especially because
of two tenets they both share: both approaches presume that the
client has existing resources that will prove useful in therapy,
and both approaches are implicitly respectful towards the client.
I believe that in order to be respectful one should offer the
least intrusive interventions than what one can offer a client
to have relief from the problem. I want to be the least intrusive
I can be while still being competent.
TM: During your years of practice what have
you started to do and stopped doing?
YD: Well I started out always asking the client
to tell me what I needed to know. I kept doing that, just even
very explicitly - “Please tell me what I need to know in
order to be useful”. Over the last few years I have constantly
added on the other question “What should I have asked that
I didn’t ask?” That’s a little bit new! The
other thing that I have learned to do differently… I have
always used compliments but I started out using very overt compliments
and I learned that a lot of people who have had terrible things
happen in their life appear to dislike compliments. They appear
to almost have a polarity response where they become fearful or
SC: They question if it is a genuine compliment?
SC: My understanding is that when we explicitly
offer a compliment it can place a person in the position where
they can refuse that compliment. Also, I worry that at times a
compliment or cheerleading could be experienced as a judgment.
YD: Do you find that asking it even creates
discomfort in the client?
SC: There´s one thing that is on my mind
today because we saw Wendel Ray present tapes of Don D. Jackson’s
work and he talked about the notion of mutual influence. What
I do influences you and what you do influences me and this is
a constant process that goes on all the time. So the notion of
complimenting, and when someone presents as uncomfortable with
a compliment is something I think is valuable to pay attention
to in our interactions. It becomes our responsibility to perhaps
change how we are presenting as to not position someone in a way
that they feel the need to deny the compliment.
I remember a story from Insoo Kim Berg who described it like
putting moisturizing lotion on. Giving someone a compliment, like
lotion, wears off after a while but if you can elicit a self-compliment
from them, getting them to compliment themselves it is like our
bodies natural moisturizer, it lasts longer. It is an important
YD: I think that it allows the therapist to
be less intrusive while still very powerfully validating. Insoo
calls that a process compliment “How did you do that?”
SC: It is a powerful and subtle question.
YD: After learning that from Insoo too, I I
use process compliments instead of the more traditional direct
ones. I think it is more respectful. I used to refame problems.
I don´t reframe anymore! Instead I ask questions that empower
the client to create their own new frame of meaning. I think its
is more respectful, less intrusive, and frankly more effective.
For example I might ask “How you explain it to yourself?”
Or I might ask, “What do you think is the most useful for
you look at it?” So I don´t have to do any refraiming.
I use this approach even if the client has explained things to
me in a very negative way. For example, recently a client told
me, “I see myself as a complete failure because I lost my
job. Everyone says I sholudn´t look at it that way, but
I can´t help it.”
Si I knew that a lot of other people had failed to reassure him
by challenging this assumption directly. So instead I asked, “What
do you think is the most productive way for you to look at this.”
And he immediately shifted into another way of looking at it:
“I need to tell myself that I´ll get through this
experience like any other and I am not a failure.” It worked
because it was a view he created. And then of course I could just
ask him, “If tonight while you were sleeping a miracle happened
so that when you woke up you saw the situation with that exact
view but you didn´t know it yet, what would be the first
things that you or other would notice that would indicate this
miracle happened?” And of course his answers were the beginning
og his creating a god behavior map that will get him where he
needs to go.
Ian Bennett (IB): In a sense it sounds as though
you have them reframe it for themselves.
SC: Then it is more likely to be right for them?
YD: Yes, because it fits for them. They are
coming up with their own reframe. It is similar to Insoo’s
idea of self-complimenting; it is self-reframing. I think the
narrative folks have made incredible contributions to this.
SC: I am intrigued by the subtleties of your
work. There are so many subtle things happening in that simple
question “What meaning do you make of this?”. It implies
there are multiple meanings, and we don’t have to get it
right today or right now but there are other meanings out there.
This for me begins already to draw in hope. It starts to draw
in possibility; something different starts to evolve. It is so
subtle yet not intrusive or laborious.
TM: I am thinking of something that also brings
respect into the relationship and that is “fit” and
“timing”. There is a definition that touched me quite
deeply. You can define life in different ways but one that touched
me very deeply is “In life you are all the time licking
honey from the razor’s edge”.
TM: Both those elements are always there, the
sweetness and the possibility to be deeply hurt and it is question
of balance all the time. You talked a couple of minutes ago about
this balance - how to validate and bring hope at the same time.
I started to think about this “respectful timing”
how important it is. Does this have any meaning for you?
YD: I think that clients give very good signals
and I have always believed that if I am not in a state of comfort
and rapport with a client it means I am doing something wrong.
I truly don’t believe in resistance! I think if the client
appears to be resisting it means I am not doing what I need to
be doing. So I have always believed that any sign that the client
is “resistant” means that I need to first of all find
out if I am understanding what they want and secondly find out
what I need to be doing differently.
SC: Again this may relate to “mutual influence”
and how we mutually influence each other in the experience. In
relating to pace or timing these are aspects I don’t hear
talked about a lot anymore, that is paying close attention to
one’s pace and one’s timing of questions, especially
in our time where many services mandate a limited number of sessions.
How do we respect timing and pace, in a way that is productive
and feels right to us as people given those constraints?
YD: How can we do whatever good we might be
able to do within those constraints because sometimes it isn’t
a choice? Sometimes we just don’t have more time. (pause)
YD: There is this thing called the “response
attentive moment”. Are you too young to have heard about
that? Erickson and Rossi wrote about this a long time ago in a
book called Hypnotic Realities. I read it in the 1980´s
and to this day, of all the descriptions I have heard, it is the
one that come closest to operationalizing rapport. Basically they
were trying to provide some guidance for when to offer the client
a comment or an idea or an invitation on a question. They believed
that there are times that people can take in a question or an
idea more easily than others. They believed that this was often
marked by stillness in the body and an evenness of breathing and
oftentimes sort of an expectant look. Of course what they described
there is what we experience as connection or rapport. One of the
ways they got there was by creating a “yes set”. Creating
an ambiance where the client could feel a sense of support and
it was fed back to the client what they were saying and perceiving
in an appreciative way. Of the non-hypnotic approaches, solution
focused therapy has been, for me, one of the ways people can do
SC: Begin to create the “yes set”,
YD: Yes, and often it is possible to do this
within the constraints of a relatively short amount of time because
(in SF therapy) we don’t argue about what the clients want.
So we are less apt to get into an antagonistic relationship.
TM: I just realized that I am thinking about
the flowers and tress. All the different flowers have their different
times and different trees have all the different fruits ripening
at different times and falling at different times. We are part
of that. Probably we have our times too.
If you would be a gardener and lets say your garden had the title
of Therapy Training, and you would have the possibility to put
some seeds into that big garden, which seeds would you choose?
Which ones are most important for you personally and somehow for
this great garden, too?
YD: I have been long fascinated with the huge
potential (or seeds!) for change that is often contained in the
small details of answering to seemingly very simple questions.
Two seemingly small questions from solution-focused therapy that
I especially enjoy asking are: “Between now and when you
made the appointment did anything get better?” (The pre-session
change question) and “what are the things going on in your
life right now that you want to have continue?” The answers
to these two questions alone could provide enough “seeds”
to plant or restore an entire garden of therapeutic changes. And
of course then you have the Miracle question which, like springtime,
helps create the conditions necessary for seeds to germinate and
bloom into a actual therapeutic changes, realities that can be
seen in the client´s (or the garden´s) every day.
Particularly if my work is with people who have had recent and
severe trauma , I have noticed that there is something powerful
about answering the questions about what they would like to have
continue in the next few days or weeks. It prevents the trauma
from completely eclipsing their sense of self, their sense of
life. For many people, answering the question of what they want
to continue doing creates a much needed initial bridge back to
feelings of hope, because the answers constitute real practical
things they can do, behaviors that they hang on to even when everything
else in their life seems to have changed. Many of my clients tell
me they have written down the things that they want to have continue
and slept with them under their pillow. If they wake up in the
middle of the night with a flashback or nightmare, they read the
list they wrote and re-connect to the much needed reassurance
of a few everyday things in their life that they can control,
things that have remained the same despite other huge changes.
The list reminds them that the terrible thing that happened, whether
it was a crime or illness of a loved one or some other terrible
thing, does not define who they are as person.
TM: Small, big things! I have the experience
that when I grow older, year after year, somehow my professional
practice and my personal life lose limits. Somehow something is
happening, probably I can’t express it but I can use my
life experience all the time, more and more, therefore I feel
that I am privileged because the older I grow the more I learn
all the time. I can use it all the time in my work.
YD: I suspect your clients are privileged as
a result to have that from you.
TM: What connections do you see between your
personal life and your professional life?
YD: Certainly some of my clients have been aware
over the years, not because I have told them, but because I have
written a number of things that allude to my having a history
of trauma and abuse. Over the years people have sometimes said
to me, “you seem happy, you seem to be having a good life”.
I like to be able to answer truthfully that I am.
TM: When I flew from Finland to Canada I had
time to be and to think and to read. I tried to prepare myself
for this situation, for this interview by reading your 3rd book.
There were many, many good exercises but especially one chapter
was important for me, it was the chapter concerning work. It it
you are saying that your work is an opportunity for spiritual
growth. Would you say something about that when your work as a
therapist? What does it mean for you personally?
YD: Well for me spiritually is something that
one can sense or feel or respond to without concrete evidence.
I feel that in seeing clients who come in often in agony from
what life has done after there isn’t an immediate picture
that indicates any possibility of things getting better as life
goes on - for me it requires every bit of spirituality I have
to be able to make that leap of faith to trust that something
will come. Each time I kind of have to just choose to act “as
if” something useful will come even though there is no evidence
usually immediately that it will. I have to trust that that person
possesses that, if only I can make the right space. I am repeatedly
humbled by what people come up with in seemingly impossible situations.
For me to communicate that faith, and often it isn’t one
I actually feel, I always think about a friend of mine who was
a very, very old priest who worked only with dying people. A friend
of mine who is an incredible intellectual, and an incredible cynic
and both of those things very much there- and an atheist! We had
a dinner party and my friend who is the priest and my friend who
is the intellectual atheist, they were both really bright people,
are sitting having dinner and my friend who is the atheist says,
“You know father, I don’t believe in God”. The
priest looks at him and says “me neither” but they
force us to behave as though I do, as though God does exist. I
often don’t have any evidence of what the solution is or
the good thing that comes of this is going to be…but I am
disciplined to believe and behave in such a way that implies something
good will happen. Certainly it does! To me that takes the best
spirituality I can muster because it is scary. Sometimes I sit
there and think, “Oh my God, what if nothing helps”.
Sometimes for a while nothing does. Yet something always comes.
That is scary and I think that therapists have to be very brave.
I mean it would be easier to talk about something real trivial
sometimes than to wait for the answer to the miracle question.
IB: Is it therapists having faith in the process
of life to let that chance event happen. Do you let that time
pass…. trust in the process of life? Do we sometimes get
in the way of that in trying to he helpful?
YD: It is the stance that gets in the way; at
least it has for me at times. In this field I think traditionally
we are trained to place more importance on the bad things that
happen to people than the good things. So we have in the field
of abuse people still defined as victims and survivors.
SC: Defined by the event?
YD: Yes, as opposed to becoming people to whom a variety of things
have happened and one of them is abuse. Another one might be falling
in love, another one might be planting a garden, another might
be becoming a mother or a father, wanting to do pole vaulting
or who know what. I think that one of the things that interferes
is training to place more emphasis on the negative than the positive
SC: How strange that sounds when we talk about
YD: When we only emphasize negative events without
acknowledging the other aspects of a person´s life, we virtually
imprison the person in their problem! And it can happen unintentionally,
because language is so subtle. Even calling someone a survivor
if used over long period of time, can inadvertently imply that
for the rest of their lives they will live in reaction to that
IB: They will never get over it?
TM: You also show the third possibility that
you called the Authentic Self.
YD: I think that people in our field have been
alluding to that for a while. Many people call this the Thriver
stage. So it is not a unique idea to me. I do think that I am
perhaps more attached to the importance of the third stage because
I see the legacy created by therapists defining clients as living
in reaction to their problems in contrast to the (to me far more
desirable!) legacy created by inviting clients to define themselves
by identifying their hopes and developing a way of life that expresses
and re-affirms these hopes. I always want to ask even if someone
is giving me a history of awful things that have happened, I always
want to ask, “How have you managed to the extend you have
up until now? What are the things in your life that are most important
IB: And if they can’t think of anything?
YD: I have never had that happen. You would
think it would but I never have. With every client I believe that
there are undoubtedly something very valuable and potentially
hope inspiring even if it is initially not visible to the therapist.
I used to work in rural mental health and you would see people
in one way in your office and then go somewhere else and see them
entirely differently. There was this family that from the first
day I was warned about. I was working in this really small town
and I was told that this is a family with a lot of abuse, the
parents were described as lazy and sneaky. The family has been
on welfare for several generations, there is a lot of drug abuse,
alcohol abuse, physical abuse, and they were described as very
negligent. My supervisors actually told me, “This is a VERY
BAD, very disturbed family. They are hopeless. Be careful or they
will take up all your time and you won´t get other work
Right about at that time I was really getting used to living
in a small town and I had only met one person that I was getting
to know outside the professional field. He was an artist and he
had these wonderful paintings he had done. He had a little art
gallery and some of the more remarkable paintings were the ones
he had done. He did portraits of a family. One of a woman carrying
a loaf of bread and this family sitting around on a big old front
porch and I remarked on them and he said “you need to meet
these people, they are some of the most wonderful families I have
ever met”. He talked about how there was a musical festival
that weekend and if I attended it I would for sure see them there
because they always went to it and they all played differed musical
instruments. Well of course I did go and it was the family I had
been warned against. All these people there were saying “oh
yea this family would give you the shirt off their backs”,
“their door is always open to anyone who is hungry or needs
It was a completely different picture and I realized that I had
only got part of the picture from my colleagues. It didn’t
mean that my colleagues picture was wrong. What they were saying
was probably absolutely true but this other past was true too.
That’s a long time ago and I am still trying to remember
to make space for both those pieces when I meet people. The piece
that brings them to therapy and the piece that is their life outside
TM: I have learned something from you today.
I am thinking that if you don’t ask the client questions
about the future and things that in spite of all are working you
don’t have a complete picture. So lets suppose that we meet
after six or seven years and you are still smiling and you are
feeling okay in your life, your profession and I ask you “oh,
how are you?” and you say “oh, I just love my life”.
And then I would ask you “so what are you doing?”.
YD: What am I doing that I love?
YD: Well, first of all you know I love my life
at least some of the time. I don’t think that I love my
life every second but I try to focus on the times I do love it.
TM: It reminds me of what Stephen Madigan said.
He plans to write a book called “I’m not okay, you
are not okay and that’s okay”. (Laughter)
YD: I guess I would find myself continuing to
have clients like I have right now. I said to one of my clients
this week. She said “thank you for seeing me, I know how
busy you are”. I said to her “It is a pleasure to
watch you bloom”. And I can tell you I really meant it.
Therapy is something I love doing. I feel like as long as I stay
out of the way and offer encouragement my clients bloom. I think
all questions, my clients bloom sooner or later. I have given
up guessing what they need. I ask them what they need because
if I ask it in the right way, they always have an answer. Then
I just them bloom. This probably sounds awfully simplistic but
it is not because every person is different.
TM: Are you doing anything else besides watching
your clients bloom?
YD: I would be making quilts, hosting gatherings
of solution-focused therapist so I can listen to them talk to
each other, continuing to do some workshops. These are all activities
I really enjoy…I would definitely be gardening. Right now
I’m looking forward to gardening all summer and reading
other people’s books and seeing clients but I have written
three books in the last five years. But perhaps if my mind gets
so full of ideas again that I can´t contain anymore I will
have no choice but to write another book. That is how it usually
happens with me, because I get exited by new ideas and then I
feel compelled to write them down before I forget, and the it
turns into a book.
IB: What do you see as the future for solution-focused
YD: I think that there are significant aspects
of this approach as well as that of some of the other constructive
therapies that will endure far into the future. These include
respecting and honoring what the client knows, empowering the
client to create his or her unique solutions. I think there are
an almost infinite number of possibilities based on that idea.
The structure can remain similar while the actual therapy can
reflect many different styles. The image that comes to mind here
is a quilt pattern. (Of course being a quilter, I think about
quilts all the time. That is one of my passions.) If you look
at the quilt pattern it is structurally the same but ten different
quilters can do it with ten different colors and each one look
different. That is not all. One person can just do a corner of
a quilt, and because they added their own color, the entire quilt
subsequently looks entirely different. And another person can
deconstruct the pattern in a different way, put it together again
with the same elements re-arranged and once again it looks entirely
different. I think the reason that there are so many approaches
in our field in general is because there are many ways to do good
therapy. Thank God for that! One of the things I love about this
field is that I can´t predict how it will go next. My hope
is that people will continue to discover more of what works. It
will be different for each person. It will be different for each
client and for each therapist.
One of the things I love right now is that I am finally at an
age when I am learning from people younger than me. It’s
really fun. I can’t really predict it. I have been a little
impatient with the American therapy field recently because I have
observed a trend in which new theorists have put a lot of energy
into attacking the visionaries who came before. I think it is
very important to support new ideas while also appreciating the
legacy of older ideas that have provided groundwork for all us
as our field has developed these past 100 years.
I think that new ideas that work are worthwhile on their own
and don´t need to constitute an annihilation of what came
before. I Think it is good enough if a new idea works.
IB: Going back to your story about trees. I
see it as a continuing, growing forest. You don’t chop down
the old trees after the new ones start to sprout. You make a forest.
YD: You wouldn’t suggest getting rid of
all the pines to grow a proper apple tree? (laughter)
TM: Also all the trees are growing in the same
earth. (Pause) I wonder what has been the most important thing
for you during this discussion?
YD: For me, your thoughts and questions have
provoked me to think about the fact that the field has and will
continue to evolve. I find I am hoping I get to live a really
long time so I get to see what comes down the river. I have this
belief that it is going to be useful and I want to see what it
TM: So you want to watch how the river flows?
YD: I should have warned you I am a chronic
TM: For me personally, this has been a very
warm and open and creative discussion. I found some new ideas
which I want put into my heart. I just want to thank you.
YD: Thank you.