No one remembered exactly when it happened, or how. This in itself was a bit strange since there were almost surely several witnesses in that psychological therapy practice office in Milwaukee that day—whichever day it was—in the 1980s. And these were not just ordinary lookers-on. They were trained observers: licensed mental health professionals. They were watching through a one-way mirror to see what happened between the therapist and her clients in the room because they knew how skilled she was at triggering positive change in the people who came to see her. And they wanted similar skills for themselves.

It could have involved the horribly dysfunctional alcoholic family. Or the woman who wanted her husband dead. Or the husband and wife who were weary of being “somebody’s problem” and having social services types always second-guessing them, offering advice, hovering in their lives like “monkeys on our backs.”

But on that day, the therapist who was being observed through the mirror popped the Miracle Question, and a new way of thinking for the human species suddenly had one of its most useful breakthrough moments. As it so often does, it changed pretty nearly everything, at least for those in psychotherapy who wanted to see their clients get better in minutes or hours instead of months or years.

The therapist was a tiny woman with dark, closely cropped hair, magnetic eyes and a ready, inviting smile. Her name was Insoo Kim Berg. She was born in Korea, came to the U.S. in 1957 to study and stayed. One of the people likely looking on that day was her husband, a jazz-musician-turned-psychotherapist named Steve de Shazer. She had persuaded the tall, gangly, Sherlock-Holmes-loving de Shazer to follow her to Wisconsin from California and join her in her life passion: equipping psychotherapists to help people heal quickly, without years of expensive, slower-than-molasses Freudian-styled “talk therapy.” De Shazer was almost certain that the Miracle Question was first voiced in off-the-cuff fashion in a therapy session between his wife and a client that went down this way:

Berg: “And what would it take to solve that?”

Client: “Oh, it would take a miracle.”

Berg: “Well, yes, suppose . . . suppose a miracle did happen?”

Berg herself once told an interviewer that her favorite version of the arrival of the Question went this way:

“Suppose a miracle happens overnight, tonight, when you go to bed. And all the problems that brought you here to talk to me today are gone. Disappeared. But because this happens while you were sleeping, you have no idea that there was a miracle during the night. The problem is all gone, all solved. So when you are slowly waking up, coming out of your sleep, what might be the first, small clue that will make you think, ‘Oh, my gosh! There must have been a miracle during the night! The problem is all gone?’”

That, almost surely, is how it happened the first time. And it has happened countless times since throughout the world in conversations with subjects guided by therapeutic professionals, management trainers, life and executive coaches, school and substance abuse counselors, teachers, managers, parents and others who have adopted Berg’s and de Shazer’s “solution-focused brief” [for “fast”] therapy approach to helping people solve their own life, career, family, business and self-developmental issues and doing so quickly.

Berg and de Shazer both died abruptly in the 2000s. The therapeutic techniques developed by Berg (she was the primary creator) and de Shazer (he observed Berg and wrote the books and training materials) included common-sense insights like the following:

• If it isn’t broken, don’t try to fix it.

• If it works, go with the flow.

• If it isn’t working, do something different.

• The solution to an issue—any issue—is almost never that closely related to the problem.

• The bullet-point above explains why the way people think and talk about problems is almost guaranteed to be different than the way they think and talk about solutions.

• The first place to look for solutions is at exceptions: what has been working that you really hadn’t noticed?

• The next best place to look for solutions is at what makes sense, now that you’ve thought a little about it.

• What usually matters most are small, right, smart next steps that put you on the path to big changes.

• People need to be reminded (and you never want to forget) that the future is both created and negotiable.

• Change is inevitable. So? So not all change is a problem, and problems do not happen all the time.

Sounds simple, doesn’t it?

Berg warned about that, though. Because thinking this way looks and sounds simple, people expect it to be easy. But she said it wasn’t. She said thinking this way is hard. The reason is that it isn’t enough simply to read somebody’s book or take their class in grad school or invest in a workshop or seminar and get familiar, even skilled, with various techniques for guiding and dealing with change. This is vastly inadequate to the real professional task at hand because it leaves out, as Berg phrased it, “the art part.” She added, “The art part is about what to do when.”

So it is “the art part” that is hardest of all. The reason for this has to do with the way the universe is set up. The art part is what gets you through the complexity, and the way the universe works, the simplicity that harbors the solution nearly always lies on the other side of complexity. You are most likely to get there if you are in possession of a mind that comes at most issues and circumstances in need of a change with the intent of finding and mobilizing the next right, smart, good thing or move.

My latest book, LEAP! How to Think Like a Dolphin & Do the Next Right, Smart Thing Come Hell or High Water, is about that kind of a mind.

In the Twenty-First Century, when any of us leave home without this mind, we may be asking for trouble. If we have it along, then the spirit is usually with us—the spirit of Insoo Kim Berg and all the others who, in the past half-century or so in particular, helped our species discover a powerful new way to think about its challenges and a powerful new mindset to think with.

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