James G. McCullagh

            In the spring of 2017 one of the assignments at the end of the semester in Dr. Anne Lutz’s Solution-Focused Fundamentals course

[1] was to present on a topic that had inspired each of us.  I chose for my presentation my surprising discovery of how life-enhancing a new awareness of oneself can occur from asking six core questions developed by Chris Iveson.[2]  My inspiration for this assignment primarily came from the course taught by Dr. Anne Lutz, and from a Solution-Focused Brief Therapy on-line course taught by the Brief International faculty in the fall 2016.[3]  The following readings were and are particularly helpful: Solution-Focused Brief Therapy[4] and Brief Coaching; A Solution-Focused Approach,[5] articles, and blogs (see http://www.brief.org.uk) authored by BRIEF founders Chris Iveson, Even George and Harvey Ratner.  They learned from and built on, added, and modified the work of Steve deShazer and Insoo Kim Berg and many who were associated with the Brief Family Center at Milwaukee, Wisconsin where, over time, SFBT became a reality.

            I am thus a newcomer to the Solution-Focused Approach.  With that realization and limitation I want to share my excitement upon learning and applying the Solution-Focused approach and specifically the following activity: A Sparkling Moment.


            The genesis of “A Sparkling Moment” according to Chris Iveson “Though we introduced [a sparkling moment] as a teaching exercise in the early 90s it is derived from Michael White and Narrative Therapy rather than SF writings.  White wrote about ‘the landscape of identity’ as one of the key themes in therapy.  I suppose it is a bit of a link also to our concept of ‘being at your best.’  The ‘sparkling moment’ was designed to help people to think well of themselves while ‘at your best’ is designed to help people do well by themselves.”[6]

            A number of university students were asked to complete this activity which consisted of six questions with the last five being asked multiple times as noted below depending on the judgment of the interviewer.  Interviews occurred in my office and lasted from about 25 to 40 minutes.  After a brief explanation I read each question.  Each student also received a copy of the questions as indicated below.  The interviews were audiotaped but not all were transcribed.  This brief paper just focuses on one interview.

As reported in Brief Coaching the questions are:

  • “Think of a time when you shone, when you were proud to be you. It might have been a moment of kindness or generosity, courage or perseverance.  It might have been a ’big’ moment or a ‘small’ one.  When you have remembered such a sparkling moment take a good look at yourself at that instant.
  • What are you most pleased to recall about yourself in that moment. x 10
  • What might others noticed about you at that moment? x 6
  • Which of the qualities you see in yourself at that moment are you most pleased to own?
  • How has the quality shown itself in the past couple of weeks? x 5
  • If you were to live life truer to that moment what difference would it make? x 5”[7]

The Ann Marie Interview

            Portions of one interview with Ann Marie[8] who responded to the second question follows: “What are you most pleased to recall about yourself in that moment?”  She responded: “When I was officially initiated into my sorority.”

Jim: “What might others have noticed about you?”

Anne: “My mother said ‘You always seem so much happier and calmer since you’ve gotten to know all those girls’.”

Anne: “Being invited that night it was just cool that everyone was just as excited about me joining as I was!”

Anne: “It was kind of strange [after being initiated] at first because with not spending a lot of time with women in the past, I had a few friends, but it was strange to be around that many that wanted to spend time with me.  So it was kind of surreal as to how amazing and happy I was.

Anne: We “and the other 7 girls that were initiated were super giddy.”

Jim: “Which of the qualities you see in yourself at that moment are you most pleased to own?”

Anne: “In that moment I was 100% confident and proud of myself.  Which is not something that I am all the time.  I always second guess or worry about things a lot, so it was strange to be that confident, proud, and happy. . . . It was such an awesome time in my life.  It was super cool to feel that way and to know that I can feel that way in other situations too.”

Jim: “How has the quality shown itself in the past couple of weeks?”

Anne: “We have different sorority events that I’ve been more confident to speak up in.  And I became the historian for our sorority, so I felt confident to take on that role.  And also, just taking the lead in school projects, because I know I can do things well.  I can’t name a specific time that it happened, but I can tell looking back there have been points where I notice I was confident in some areas.  And I don’t think, since then, that I have had a very low day.”

Jim: “What other qualities have you noticed about yourself in the past couple of weeks?” [A slightly different version].

Anne: “I have found that I am not worrying as much because I know I can complete certain tasks or be by myself in certain situations.  So I still plan things, but I don’t find myself over planning and stressing out.  I think that because I’m busier, I have more motivation to get things done.  Because I am like okay, if I get these things done, then I can go to the sorority event that we ae having tonight.  So it’s kind of like an incentive.”

Jim: “My last question.  If you were to live life truer to that moment, what difference would that make?”

Anne: A lot!  I would probably try getting more involved in more things, on campus and off campus.  I would be more confident in myself at home.  So my sister is an art major, so my whole house is decorated in things that my sister has done.  So you walk in my house and it screams Tina[9]!  So I joke with my mom and say I want to draw a stick figure and put it on the fridge and say “Anne Marie lives here too!”  So every now and then it gets overwhelming for me, that it’s all about my sister.  Sometimes it feels like that’s what people see when they look at my family.  They see my parents and my sister, and then I’m kind of like a side note.  With being more confident and proud of myself, I’ve found that I’m getting more attention from my parents in a positive way.  Because in high school I would act out to get attention from them, but it was in a negative way.  But I would get attention from them so it was working.  But now it’s cool to see that my parents are proud of me!

Jim: Anything else that comes to mind?

Anne: I guess with my sister, she’s 13 months older than me, she’s an art therapy major.

Jim: Wow, art therapy!  And the family house is plastered with her artwork?

Anne: Yes, which is not a bad thing because she’s very talented.  And she will make different things for me, just every now and then it gets overwhelming.  I love her to death because we are super close in age, we were very close growing up.  I am starting to understand more that she has things that she is good at, and I have things that I am good at.  I actually have things that I am proud of and just because they aren’t plastered all over the walls doesn’t mean that they’re not there.  So I have just began to realize that more often; there are qualities about me that I like and there are things about me that my sister isn’t.  When I am having a low day, I will get annoyed with her, but I’m learning more that it’s not that one of us is better than the other.  We are similar but different.

Jim: Being initiated into the sorority has made a profound difference in your life

Anne: Very much so

Jim: It’s almost like you are a new person.

Anne: Mmhm.

Jim: If I were to scale this, 0 was the moment before you joined the sorority and 10 is right now today, in the area of confidence in yourself, where would you put yourself?

Anne: I would probably say 8.6

Jim: (laughs) Wow, what a difference.

Anne: Yes, I am very confident that I can still be this confident, but with summer (I am going home, but I know like 10 girls that live in the same area as me) so I will be away from them for the summer.  But the other 1.4 that I wouldn’t be confident, would just be because I will be away from everyone and I will be more likely to close myself off and not put myself out there.  But I know that they are all there and they do want to hang out with me.  With this, I get 10 emails a day about sorority things going on, or texts from different girls, so I feel confident that I can keep it going.

.Jim: Especially with some in the same area as you, you can make contact with them.

Anne: Yes, I’m close enough with them that I could make a stronger relationship with them this summer.

Jim: So you mentioned that you might be more inclined to shut down, what can you do to make sure you don’t shut down?

Anne: I think I can do the exceptions journaling.  I found that I do one to two questions at night when I have time.  It helps to have a positive thought at night because usually the later it gets the more I overthink.  So, with doing that it puts a positive aspect in my life and helps me see that I can have a good day.[10]

Reflections on My Interview with Anne Marie

            Throughout the interview as she detailed the event of being “pinned” and the subsequent activities of that evening she increasingly became happier and excited to share her turning point or sparkling moment.  At times I was very close to tears as Anne Marie expanded on her joyous moment of being officially being accepted as a sorority sister.  The detailed description of the event and her subsequent activities appeared to reinforce the significance of her being accepted by all the sisters of her now sorority.  In response to a scaling on how helpful our conversation was Anne Marie responded: “I would probably say a 10.  I know that there are good aspects of my life but when I’m doing an interview with you or someone else, it reminds me of all these things!  It helps a lot when I can talk with someone.”

            Shennan and Iveson noted that “the most powerful therapeutic elements at work were the client’s description.”[11]  Ann Marie, at least to some extent, in the retelling of being accepted into her now sorority re-experienced the event by articulating—talking out loud—her moment reinforced her experience of acceptance.  Iveson and McKergow remarked in relation to clients at BRIEF that “It is possible, therefore, that the experience of co-creating a detailed description is a potent therapeutic intervention in itself, the conversation being the thing rather than ‘about the thing.”[12]  The conversation—listening to her description—also changed me.  Anne Marie’s description of a key event in her life was also my sparkling moment.  It was a delightful and joyous experience.  I was inspired.  And I am still on a high!

            Numerous other students shared their sparkling moments.  One student remarked: “You may not realize how much you impacted my life but I can definitely say you did.”  Each student who described their sparkling moments changed their lives for the better.  The retelling of their sparkling moment in some detail was a reliving of a remarkable event that was a turning point in their lives as well as in in my life.

            Evan George, a co-founder of BRIEF, discussed two stories that included asking a “best hopes” question which was later followed by a “sparkling moment” question.  One pertained to a reconstituted family that were “in tough circumstances.”  Evan started by asking each family member—four children and two adults—what their best hopes were for their meeting.  The family members responded that they wanted to get on better.  This was followed with another question by Even: “What difference would it make to family life if you find yourself getting on better in the way that you want?”  Each family member responded that there would be “fewer arguments, less conflict, and more getting on.”  Just prior to taking a break and leaving the room he asked the family “to bring to mind ‘sparkling moments’ in family life that give you hope that you can indeed be the family that you aspire to be.”  After five minutes Evan returned and asked each family member to share a “’sparkling’ story of family life that gave them hope. . . .  As the father finished his account, he said ‘We can do it, we can do it.”  The family, after the first and only session, did not need to return.”[13]

            The Sparkling Moment exercise has broad applicability whether it’s applied in a counseling session, as noted above by Evan George, or as am exercise used by a coach, or as a stand-alone activity as presented above.

[1] Solution-Focused Fundamentals and Practice Online Blended Certificate Course that met weekly from January 17 to May 12, 2017.

[2] Chris Iveson, Evan George, & Harvey Ratner (2012). “Activity 2: A Sparkling moment (thanks to Michael White [London]) in Brief Coaching: A Solution-Focused Approach. London: Routledge, p. 78.

[3] Elliott Connie, Adam Froerer, Chris Iveson, and Evan George were the instructors for the “Solution-Focused Brief Therapy Online Certificate Course – Fall 2016 Cohort.

[4] Harvey Ratner, Evan George, & Chris Iveson. (2012). Solution-Focused Brief Therapy: 100 Key Points & Techniques. London: Routledge.

[5] Chris Iveson, Evan George, & Harvey Ratner (2012). Brief Coaching: A Solution-Focused Approach. London: Routledge.

[6] Chris Iveson, e-mail to the author on April 18, 2017.

[7] Chris Iveson, Evan George, & Harvey Ratner (2012). Brief Coaching: A Solution-Focused Approach. London: Routledge, p. 78. [Hereinafter cited as Brief Coaching].

[8] Ann Marie is not her real name.  She gave me permission to use our interview.  This study, as part of a larger project, was approved by the Institutional Review Board (IRS) of the University of Northern Iowa.

[9] Tina is not her real name.

[10] Students were given a copy of “Exceptions Journal” developed by Fredrike Bannink, Post Traumatic Success by W. W. Norton & Co., New York, pp. 345-46.  It includes a list of 18 questions with the first being “What is better today (even just a little bit)?”  The author suggests answering “just a few questions every day and vary them” (p. 345).

[11] Guy Shennan & Chris Iveson, “From Solution to Description.” In Cynthia Franklin, Terry S. Trepper, Wallace J. Gingerich, & Eric E. McCollum (Eds.) (2012), Solution-Focused Brief Therapy: A Handbook of Evidence-Based Practice, New York: Oxford University Press, p. 289.

[12] Chris Iveson & Mark McKergow, “Brief Therapy: Focused Description Development,” Journal of Solution-Focused Brief Therapy, 2(1), 13.

[13] Evan George, “Sparkling Moments,” in Thorana S. Nelson (Ed.), Doing Something Different: Solution-Focused Brief Therapy Practices. New York: Routledge, 2010, pp. 49-51.