The ‘miracle question’ is an extension of goal setting or a technique for facilitating the identification of goals. It also helps to through light on existing solutions and resources while fostering a climate of change (O'Connell, 2005; p48).
It can be particularly helpful when the client is very ‘stuck’ in their problems, has difficulties setting goals, or has very low expectations for the future. “The intention is to generate a rich, detailed, practical description of life without the problem. Being able to visualise the future can be empowering and instructive in teaching us how to act in the present” (O'Connell, 2005; p48).
The value of visualising the detailed evidence of the miracle is emphasised by de Shazer, Dolan et al (2007). They point out that deep visualisation can evoke emotional processing that gives some people a virtual experience of the miracle occurring. This can bring us a sense of the closeness of the solution (de Shazer, et al., 2007; p40-41).
The ‘miracle question’ invites clients’ to use their imagination to describe in some detail what their lives will be like when the problem no longer dominates or controls it (O’Connell, 2003).
The imaginary format of the miracle question may be particularly beneficial in helping young people with low expectations begin to get in touch with alternative pathways in life that they had not previously considered possible. The basic format of the miracle question is “Now I want to ask you a strange question. Suppose that one night while you were asleep, there was a miracle and this problem was solved. However because you were sleeping you don’t know that the miracle has happened. So when you wake up, what will be different that will tell you that a miracle has happened and that the problem is solved? (Pichot & Dolan, 2007; p77).
In using the miracle question it is helpful to introduce it slowly and reflectively, with pauses between the phrases to allow the client to enter into the spirit of the question (de Shazer, et al., 2007; O'Connell, 2005).
There are four main types of answers that could be received (O'Connell, 2005; p48-52),
Realistic answer – The task here is to encourage elaboration. To encourage more detail ask ‘What else?’ questions. Where aspects of the picture are vague encourage more concrete description. For aspects framed in terms of what will not be happening) ask what will be happening instead.
No answer e.g. ‘Don’t know’ - Be silent and allow the person time to think and imagine. Perhaps frame the question a little differently. It can be helpful to tell the client that there is no right or wrong answer, or introduce another point of view (e.g. ‘What would anyone else notice about you when the miracle happens?’)
Unrealistically positive answer - e.g. ‘I’ll be rich and have a big house’. This response can evoke light banter, yet can still reveal some serious hopes. This answer can be explored for the meanings and values that sit behind it. This process might eventually reveal more modest and realistic desires. For example asking a few questions about what it would mean to have a big house might reveal a desire to have a lot of space to relax in or to live with a large group of people.
I’ll be dead – Make a suicide risk assessment, then invite the client to describe another version of the morning after the miracle, in which the client is still alive and their problems are being dealt with.
It is important for the counsellor to be in the right mind-set when they ask the miracle question. “[Y]ou have to ask the question as if you really want to hear the answer and you believe that the client has the ability to give a good answer” (de Shazer, et al., 2007; p39).
Some practitioners are afraid that the miracle question might lead down a path of false hopes. Reassurance that this is unlikely is provided by de Shazer et al “We believe that in most cases people … are all too aware of the realities of the conditions they are experiencing, and have the ability to recognise wishful thinking for exactly what it is. On the other hand, starting out by acknowledging what one hopes for that is not going to happen can be a first step towards identifying some useful things that are possible to make happen (de Shazer, et al., 2007; p39).
The miracle question is an exercise in imagination, not a fantasy journey. It should not be used to generate or entertain unrealistic hopes.
Note: Detailed discussion of a wider variety of answers to the miracle question and ways of responding to them is provided by de Shazer et al (2007; p43-54).