Because many people are not used to being asked what they want, one tip is to ask it and then keep quiet if you don’t get an immediate answer. Allow thinking time. You may even need to ask again later in the conversation. It can help to think of ‘What does this client want?’ as the topic of this part of the conversation, so that you can approach the topic in a variety of ways until all parties are clear about the answer.
In organisational consulting contexts, for example, we may use ‘What do you want?’ as a means of getting to a range of choices for our clients. They may want lots of things, from which they can prioritise the most important or most urgent.
When we hear what someone wants, we often repeat what they say in order to check for clarity, allow for adjustments and refinements and further ideas. It also shows we are listening accurately, then working to the same ends. We may check by restating to the client, “What you want is…” That’s especially useful when we meet people who find it easier to list for us what they don’t want. They may be more familiar with the unwanted elements that are present here and now. Our task then is to find out what they might want instead.
While it is possible to launch straight into a conversation by asking, ‘What do you want?’, timing is important, and it can be more effective to ask once you know what topics are on people’s minds. Then you will be asking what they want in relation to a specified issue, not in isolation. That allows useful discussion about the difference that getting what’s wanted will make.
We can ask ‘What do you want to be different?’ or ‘What do you want to be better?’ in relation to the topics mentioned. As well as giving us a more accurate sense of direction, answers to these questions mean we can now also check for the benefits of such differences for the clients, and ensure that any efforts are going to be worthwhile.
Another consideration about when to ask what’s wanted hinges on clients’ attitudes. Insoo Kim Berg, one of the pioneers of SF thinking, used to say, ‘Meet people in their resources’. She would often find out about some strengths and successes of her clients before she asked them what they wanted. You’ll get different answers, depending on how optimistic or pessimistic your clients are feeling.
This shows that the answer to ‘What do you want?’ is not fixed. You could even say it is negotiated within each conversation. In a typical solution-focused (SF) second session, we review progress in the light of what was wanted. Then once we have reviewed what’s better, we’re ready with our question again, wondering what else you want. ‘Given what’s been happening, now what do you want?’