Tapio Malinen, tapio.malinentathata.fi, Sundintie 26, FI 06650 Hamari, Finland


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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 those changes?

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 uncomfortable.

SC: They question if it is a genuine compliment?

YD: Yes

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: Absolutely.

TM: Yes.

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 shift!

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”.

YD: Wow.

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 that.

SC: Begin to create the “yes set”, establish rapport?

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 one.

SC: How strange that sounds when we talk about it.

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 event.

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 to you?”

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 done.”

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 anything”.

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 of therapy.

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?

TM: Yes.

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 brief therapy?

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 is.

TM: So you want to watch how the river flows?

YD: I should have warned you I am a chronic optimist.

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.



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