When helping someone change, it can feel like we are trying to convince them of a better path forward. They may be stuck in self-destructive forms of avoidance, rationalization, or rigid thoughts, keeping them from being present and living in alignment with their values.
It is tempting to argue our way through, but the more we try, the more resistance we encounter. If you are a professional working in mental health and addiction, or a frustrated family member or friend, the creative hopelessness technique may help you move forward more effectively to provide support.
The concept of creative hopelessness is a technique in Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) designed to help persons give up on ineffective ways of being, helping them open up to a new values-based path forward. It avoids argumentation by posing a set of questions that allows the other person to be convinced by their own lived experiences.
Drawing on the work of Steven Hayes and the lessons presented in his course, Act in Practice, the approach can be summarised in the following steps:
- Ask what they want.
- Ask what they have been doing to get what they want.
- Curiously ask how these things have been working.
- Actively listen, then summarize their desires and actions.
- Ask if they are willing to try a new approach.
Let’s delve into how it works and how you can use this powerful technique in your interactions.
How Creative Hopelessness Works
Creative hopelessness works by guiding a person toward convincing themselves to give up hope on ineffective approaches. The key is having them persuade themselves, based on their own experiences. Their lived experiences are the most powerful motivational tool at our disposal.
When we try to argue with someone, based on our own experiences, they can’t fully integrate the advice. They may say “you’re right,” showing signs they agree, generally followed by a, “yeah, but…” giving rationalizations on why it’s different for them.
As FBI hostage negotiator, Chris Voss shares, hearing “you’re right” is deceiving, since it feels good. We think we just won them over, not realizing it is a short-lived hollow victory. If you hear “you’re right,” it may be a red flag that you’re doing too much arguing and not enough listening and evoking.
Rather than hearing, “you’re right,” you want to hear, “that’s right.” This means you are demonstrating accurate empathy, and the person is actively engaged in a collaborative process, rather than being a passive recipient of well-intentioned advice.
Creative hopelessness requires guiding the person through the lessons of their own lived experiences. This is how one comes to terms with the ineffectiveness of one’s current approach. As Stephen Covey says:
“If we keep doing what we’re doing, we’re going to keep getting what we’re getting.”
Merely telling someone this has a very different effect compared to inquiring into what they have been doing and asking how it has been working.
When asking how their previous attempts have been working, it is also essential to maintain curiosity and neutrality rather than asking presumptively or sarcastically. Perhaps some aspects of their previous attempts are actually working.
The goal is to determine the aspects of their experience that have not worked, having them come to a state of hopelessness regarding those approaches, not a general state of hopeless.
From Hopelessness to Hope
This is where the creative aspect of creative hopelessness comes in. Guiding someone to a place of hopelessness regarding their current way of operating is only helpful if they are presented with a new sense of hope in moving toward a valued direction.
Asking if they are willing to try something different offers a way out of this state of hopelessness, so long as they are willing to take a courageous step into unfamiliar territory.
If they are still showing signs of hesitation, it may be useful to refocus on what they want and what they value. As stated by Victor Frankl:
“Those who have a ‘why’ to live, can bear with almost any ‘how’.”
Keeping the process focused on their ‘why’ increases motivation to move forward, despite the fear and uncertainty. It is vital to continually revisit this ‘why’ recalling what is important to them and what they value.
In Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), values are ways of being. This means you are generally able to turn it into an adverb. Here are a few examples: lovingly, creatively, genuinely, excellently. Values are qualities of being, not destinations in themselves; therefore, gaining clarity on one’s values allows for ongoing motivation. See the “Values” section in my comprehensive summary of ACT here.
Values-based goals can also be drawn on for motivational momentum. Goals involve a vision of a specific valued destination. When discussing goals, it is important to make sure the person describes what they want, rather than a description of what they don’t want.
For example, when asking what someone wants, they may say, “I want to stop feeling so anxious.” Although this may be true, it does not pave a valued path forward. Perhaps re-framing the question may be helpful. For example, “So let’s imagine your anxiety is gone… What would you do? (goals) What do you want your life to be about? (values).”
This is one way to gain a clearer answer to the first step of creative hopelessness, inquiring into what they want. Although it is the first question, it may be effective to continually come back to it, clarifying a values-based path forward. This ‘why’ provides a positive vision of the future, offering courage when letting go of old habits.
An Example of Creative Hopelessness
Here is a rough example of creative hopelessness, following the steps indicated in the introduction. I open the conversation with an ineffective approach, then transition into a collaborative creative hopelessness process.
Person: “I’ve been struggling for years, feeling like I am stuck in my head. I’m always analyzing everything, thinking about what might go wrong.”
You: “You need to get out of your head and focus on the present… have you tried meditation?”
Person: “Yeah… it hasn’t really worked… I feel like if I stop worrying, everything will fall apart.”
You: “That’s not a realistic thought… things will likely be fine.”
Person: “You’re right… but I’ve been through a lot, and this is helping me survive.”
You: “What do you want your life to be about?”
Person: “I want to be able to protect my kids and show them love.”
You: “And what have you been doing to protect your kids and show them love?”
Person: “I’ve been constantly thinking about what might go wrong and how I can give them the best life possible.”
You: *curiously inquires* “How has this been working for you?”
Person: “I guess I’ve kept them safe, but I don’t feel like I am able to be present and show them love, since I’m stuck in my head.”
You: “What else have you tried?”
*Continue inquiring into the effectiveness of past approaches.*
You: “So it looks like you value your family and want to be able to give them a great life, while being present and engaged.”
Person: “That’s right.”
You: “And this pattern of retreating into your had has kept you from lovingly connecting with them as often as you would like.”
Person: “That’s right… I want to be there for them.”
You: “And retreating into your head seems to be taking you away.”
Person: “Yeah… it is.”
You: “And when you keep doing what you’re doing, you keep getting what you’re getting… so I’m wondering if you would be willing to let go of this approach and be open to trying something different…”
Person: “Let’s do it.”
The end of the creative hopelessness technique is the beginning of the change process. It simply brings the person to a state of willingness to move forward. The process of change can be uncertain and uncomfortable, so fostering this sense of initial motivation and commitment can help an individual take the initial steps forward.
The initial steps depend on the person. In the example above, work may start by developing present moment awareness. If the person’s primary concern is related to emotional avoidance, work may begin by focusing on acceptance and emotional openness. If the person is unclear on their values, work can start with exercises focused on clarifying values.
For a comprehensive overview of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), check out my article How to Improve Psychological Flexibility. In that article, I break down each of the six ACT processes, offering metaphors and practical exercises.
Although this article is focused on ACT, I also drew on my background in Motivational Interviewing (MI). The creative hopelessness technique can significantly benefit from integrating MI since it is focused on working with resistance and increasing motivation for change. For a comprehensive overview of MI with examples of how it works, check out my article, How to Do Motivational Interviewing.
Since this article is focused on techniques used in mental health and addiction treatment, many aspects may not be relevant if you are using this outside of a clinical setting.
If you are helping a child or family member, some aspects of this approach may be helpful, but it is important to maintain personal boundaries since over-involvement can be counterproductive. For more on this topic, see my article on the difference between helping and enabling. If you are helping a child or family member, my article here may be helpful.