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Hope-friendly helping conversations

Ella consults a care provider. What is she hoping for?
Or is she losing hope?
Or both?
Isabel is the care provider. She wants to facilitate a hope-friendly conversation. So what can she do?
I will outline some options for Isabel to allow Ella to get hope within her sight, in a rich and full way.
Especially Ella’s sight, as these will be conversation options that are meant to help open up life options for Ella – conversation options make hope more noticeable, concrete, and fertile, so that new ideas may present themselves to Ella.

Pop-ups of hope?

How can hope present itself?

  • Ella takes the initiative to consult a care provider. What does she hope this will result in?
  • Victor does not accept what is happening at work. Does he nurture the hope something might change?
  • Much is uncertain, but Emma is feeling happy. What is it that she is connecting with? What does she have a connection with that keeps these uncertainties from generating fear? What are some of the possibilities that she is sensing?
  • Lucas is suddenly taken over by fear. His larger than life fear: ‘this will never get better again!’ What had made it possible for him up till that moment to have a different attitude? Before the fear struck? What did he see? What did he understand about himself, or others, or life?
  • Elise has suffered much cruelty as a child. And as an adult. What has – even by a little – supported her to keep on going? To get back onto her feet after she lost courage? A sparkle of hope that things might someday get better?

Hope can take many forms: an initiative, a refusal to give up, trust where fear could rule, even hopelessness indicates hope (i.e. one from which one is getting separated).

Hope is an intimate experience. A state of being open for possibilities. Possibilities that are dear to us, which we have some kind of relation with.
Hope penetrates our entire life experience, just as the loss of hope does.

Some perspectives on hope

Some basic principles. (Only for people who like lists of principles.)

  • It is not useful presume that hope is something deeply human or existential. The idea that the ability to maintain hope under the most difficult of circumstances is somehow inherent to human existence discourages us from asking questions. Questions which can facilitate a Conversation (with a capital C). Conversations with a capital C are not about ‘communicating’: they engender experiences and perspectives. During a Conversation, people are given the opportunity to give meaning to their experiences, and that transports them to a different place in life than before. In a Conversation people get the chance to trace back their hope, and give meaning to it.
  • The experience of hope is often connected to various (often implicit) perspectives on or conclusions about oneself (i.e. concerning skills, qualities, what someone’s life is about), the world, other people, life. These (hope-friendly) perspectives and conclusions are associated with (hope-friendly) experiences from the recent or the distant past.
  • Experiences are hope-undermining when they put hope-friendly perspectives or conclusions into doubt. At that point, we lose touch with those hope-friendly perspectives/conclusions, as well as with the experiences they connect to.
  • The intensity of the connection we feel with hope-friendly experiences can vary from strongly to weakly. When that connection is weak, hope is also weak or fragile. Is our connection strong, however, our hope is potent.
  • A potent hope stimulates ideas. Also in connection with taking potential hurdles. A potent hope generates the desire and the impulse to take action.
  • It is useful to have conversations about hope-friendly perspectives, conclusions as well as the experiences that form (or formed) the basis for it. These conversations strengthen the connection we have with hope-friendly experiences, perspectives and conclusions.They afford more possibilities for hope to become potent. They create a platform for ideas, cooperation and action.
  • Hope should not be mindlessly pumped up through verbal encouragement. By richly retelling the experiences, perspectives and conclusions that are intimately connected with a certain hope, it will automatically gain a natural, powerful form. This might result in some very useful ideas and impulses. It is also possible that the person will re-form the hope.

A history of hope

Because hope is so strongly connected with concrete experiences, we simply must ask about the experiences that have led hope to enter someone’s life, and/or
* to become nourished or strengthened or confirmed.*

You might consider questions like:

  • When do you think this hope (that …) first came into your life?
  • Can you tell me something about the experiences that may have created a foundation for this hope (that …)?
  • How has this hope come into your life?
  • When did you first come into contact with this hope?
  • I think you might have experienced things that may have brought you to the idea: ‘maybe it is a real possibility for me to …’ What do you think? What are some of the experiences that may have confirmed to you that … might also be a possibility for you?
  • And what are some of experiences in the course of your life that might have confirmed this hope? Or strengthened it? What have you experienced or done (or attempted or read or seen or heard about) to give this hope some vitamins? Which might have confirmed that this hope might be a justified one?

The social/relational history of hope

There is another important category of questions: Questions about hope-generating encounters with people or figures from the life history of the person. For instance, we might have met someone who made us feel appreciated. This brought a skill or quality into focus, which allowed us to imagine a future in a way we had been unable before. Or we felt that the other person treated us as someone who is entitled to a bit of happiness, or a humane life, or respect. Or the other person saw us as someone who would turn out alright. Perhaps we connected with a character in a book, movie or television series, and that awakened an awareness of a possibility. For instance, the awareness that staying the course may pay off in the end, or that you may be able to retain your humanity, even in inhuman conditions, or you might recognize a skill in the character that you yourself (might) also have.

Some examples of questions from this category:

  • Can I ask you something? … This hope we are talking about: If you think of one person who might have contributed to this hope, who would this be?
  • What person or figure may – in one way or the other – have contributed to your ability to nurture this hope?
  • Who in your life might have confirmed the validity of this hope – perhaps just because of their way of doing things?

The heartbeat of hope

When you have managed to trace one or several experiences from the history of hope, this gives you a starting point. Which is important, but it is only just a starting point. The point is to sufficiently revive these experiences. They have to be woken up. The person must be able to see his/her hope almost concretely.
Touch it.
Hear it.
Taste it.
Smell it.
The shape of it.
The colours.
The texture.
The limbs.
The heartbeat.
The temperature.
The surrounding landscape.


We ask questions about the concrete circumstances of the experiences.
And we explore what the person knew at that moment, saw, felt, (re)discovered which helped to develop or confirm a certain hope.

Ask about concrete situations

We need to ask about the concrete circumstances of hope-generating or hope-affirming experiences and context.

  • When?
  • What happened?
  • Who was involved?
  • Who did what?
  • Where?

*Ella: I think that even as I child I had the feeling that I would end up alright. Despite all the trouble I had with my parents and at school.
Isabel (caregiver): How old were you – do you think – when you first became aware of this feeling? … As a child you said: Are we talking about kindergarten, or elementary school. Or later?
Ella: Hum, maybe in primary school. Year four, or five?
Isabel (caregiver): What experiences in year four or five might have meant something special in regard to this feeling you had that you would end up alright?
Ella*: I had a friend back then, Charlotte. I used to come over to her home. Sometimes, I stayed over. She had lovely parents. Very different from mine.
Isabel (caregiver): Can you tell me about Charlotte? … What kind of things did you used to do? … And what about her parents? What do you remember about them? … What can you remember about what they did that was different from what you were used to? … What struck you the most about them? … How often did you come over? …. Perhaps it might not be that important, but do you remember what Charlotte’s home looked like? …

Questions about (re)discoveries, insights, perspectives

Once we have done some digging through the concrete memories, we can start asking questions about perspectives. Such as:

  • At that point, was there anything about yourself that came into sharper focus?
  • What did you become aware of? What skill or quality you have did came sharper into focus?
  • What possibilities for your life did you possibly sense at that point?
  • What did you sense that X appreciated about you? How was that for you?
  • Is it possible that this evoked a new perspective for you?
  • Was this the first time you got the feeling that … or did this confirm something were you already aware of, somewhere deep down?
  • So it confirmed something you were already aware of. Could you say something about that? What earlier experiences had you had that …?
  • What other stories can you tell me that fit in with this?

Isabel (caregiver): Just now, I asked you about some of your experiences might have nurtured your sense that things might end up alright for you, despite the problems. You thought of Charlotte and her parents. What is the link between these experiences with Charlotte and her parents and your feeling that you might end up alright? What is it that you might have experienced with them, or discovered about yourself?
Ella: Charlotte’s mom was always happy when I was there. I really got the feeling she was happy I was Charlotte’s best friend. That was so completely different from my life at home.
Isabel (caregiver): What could Charlotte’s mum see in you that your parents might have been blind to?
Ella: That I was a good kid. A normal kid. A good kid. With them, I even felt special.ladder
Isabel (caregiver): How was it for you to experience this?
Ella: (Tears) … It is hard to think back to that … It sounds a bit stupid, but I think it might have saved my life …’ (tears)
Isabel (caregiver): Let’s say I could have talked to you back then, and you would have trusted me, and I would have asked you: ‘You experiences at Charlotte’s home, how do these impact the way you view yourself? … What images does this evoke about the future? … What kind of possibilities do you see for yourself, later, when you think about how happy Charlotte’s mom is that you are her daughter’s friend? … What would you have told me?
Ella: A normal life! Like Charlotte had. A normal life. A good life. Just like her! And that I was entitled to it too! That that shit back home really was shit, and I didn’t deserve it.
Isabel (caregiver): That awareness that you were entitled to a normal, a good life, has it supported you in any way then or later, during hard times?
Ella*: That’s a difficult question. I never thought about that before.
Isabel (caregiver): Sure. Do you think these experiences of being normal and good and of being entitled to a good, normal life might have made something possible for you, later, one way or another? Or may have supported you somehow?

A spark of hope

I recall having a conversation with a man, years ago, who was feeling hopeless. He told me that, a few weeks before, he had experienced a spark of hope, briefly. It had seem odd to him, as there seemed to have been no foundation for such a spark. After all, after days of wandering he had ended up on a psychiatric ward. It had been a wandering around with the sole perspective of ending his life. So I asked him about the spark.
Questions, such as:

  • Can I ask you something about that spark of hope that you experienced?
  • Do you remember where you were? And what happened?
  • When it was still there … What if I had asked you at that point: What possibilities are you seeing right now? What would your answer have been?
  • At that moment when that spark of hope was in your life: What did you recognise about yourself that you could no longer see later on? What did you know at that point in time (which may have eluded you later)?


A Conversation developed. During that Conversation, the man was able to once again see and feel what he had been able to see and feel weeks before, as by the hand of grace. Without me having to make him feel better or give him words of encouragement.

So: Do not skip on hope. Not even faint one. Not even a spark. Not even a spark of hope that might not be there anymore.

Skills in reclaiming hope

During a conversation about a hope that was important in her life, I asked Martha if she had known moments that she had lost hope. She confirmed this, and told me about a time when she did not have a job and lived somewhere where she hardly knew the language. How did she manage to reclaim that hope? She told me a story of headstrong just keeping on trying, despite all rejection: ‘just keep on trying, keep on trying’. She also told me a story about Kathie, a woman who had helped her. I asked her why she thought this woman had done that. She told me what she had meant to Kathie. What Kathie had seen in her, and appreciated. She showed me a picture of Kathie. I asked her for another story about ‘keeping on trying’, and she told me a more recent story.
We can facilitate a Conversation about skills to reclaim hope. With questions, such as:

  • How did you succeed to reclaim that hope? To re-possess it? Could you tell me something about that?
  • What has been important to make it possible for you to reacquire that hope?

The other side of despair

Let’s look at the following questions:

  • You said that you could no longer continue on. Would it be okay with you if I asked some questions about your sense of what you had been continuing on with up to this point? Or perhaps about what it was that you had been depending on to see you through up to now?;
  • You said that you have given up. Could I ask some questions about what it is you are giving up on? Or perhaps about what it is that you are getting separated from, or losing touch with, that had been important to you?;
  • You said that you can’t see a future for yourself any more? Would it be okay for me to ask you about what possibilities you had seen for your future? And how, at least to a point, this has been sustaining of your life up to this time? Or perhaps about what it was that had made it possible for you, until recently, to keep this future in sight?

These questions provide

the possibility to explore the hope or the perspective that has been lost by the person.
I found these in an article by Michael White about the other (implicit) side of expressions of psychological pain.
No misunderstanding: It was not Michael White’s aim to avoid having a conversation about the loss of hope or perspective. He suggested exploring:

  • the experience people have of the despair they experience,
  • how despair manifests itself in their lives: i.e. the effects of despair on somebody’s life, thought, relationships, …,
  • the contexts of this despair, such as its socioeconomic conditions and the power relations of local culture, and
  • possible approaches to these contexts.

However, Michael White was a proponent of double-listening, which may make people feel *double-heard*: not only heard in the experience of their despair, but also in the hope they were getting separated from, or are in danger of being separated from. ShadowFollowing that line, you may, for instance, recognise:

  • What the hope enabled to think and do,
  • What the hope provided that was valuable to the person,
  • Which experiences and beliefs and relationships offered a platform for that hope,
  • What hope has contributed to the lives of others.

When we try to ‘double-listen’, we might not only hear the absence of hope, but also the tone in which it is expressed. Does that tone express that someone is at peace with the loss of hope? Or does it point to discontent, to protest, to a complaint? To the preciousness of that hope? To actions to get it back again?
A rich conversation can be developed based on this.

So here we are.
Some options for hope-supporting helping conversations.
The perspectives that are associated with hope.
The experiences that are associated with hope.
The possibilities that give hope.
Skills in the reclaiming of hope.
We can also research the effects of hope together: what the person thinks about these effects.
We can research options to give up a hope, or to transform one hope into another.
But that’s for another time. I hope this will be of help in your work.
Do you have an anecdote about a conversation about hope that you would like to share with me?

Here you can download a cheat sheet: cheat_sheet_Hope_Affirming_helping_conversations.

Kind regards,
Johan Van de Putte
16th of May, 2016

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Johan Van de Putte

Johan Van de Putte is a psychologist with 25 years of experience in holding helping conversations. His focus goes out to molding conversations that are identity-friendly, that explore what sparkles in the life and the person of your conversation partner, and that maintain an awareness of the unequal distribution of power in the therapeutic relationship.

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