Well Formed Outcome

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Well-Formed Outcomes

By John Plester

Most people want to achieve some sort of goal. We think of all the things we would like to achieve at times and maybe even write lists of what we want in life.

When a client presents a problem, they may tell you what they want stated in a negative way. For instance, they may say, “I don’t want to be anxious anymore, I want to stop the lack of confidence”. What they are really doing is telling you what they do not want. A well-formed outcome has to be stated in the positive, or it is not well-formed. Well-formedness has criteria that need to be met if the goal is to be achieved. To help a client become confident, we need to know what confidence means to that person. When we ask specific questions about what confidence would mean, we will be getting more positive answers that eventually will lead to the goal being achieved.

The unconscious part of the mind does not process negatives, so when someone says “I don’t want to be anxious”, the unconscious has to think about being anxious, to then not be anxious. Shout at a child, “don’t fall off that wall you are on” and the child will look at the wall first and then may fall off. They have got to think about falling off first.

As an example; whatever you do for the next moment or so, don’t think of a green pig. Chances are you had to think of the pig first, you might have made a picture of one! It might sound a little strange to begin with, but it really works if you ask what the person really wants stated in the positive.

Setting Well Formed Outcomes

  1. What do you really want – stated in the positive e.g. to feel relaxed rather than to feel less tense.
  2. What will you see, hear and feel when you have achieved this?
  3. Does this outcome involve others or can you achieve it by yourself?
  4. Does it result in a win/win situation for all concerned?
  5. Are there any benefits of your present situation that might be lost if you achieve this outcome? How can the benefits be retained.
  6. How much energy will you commit to this project?
  7. What will be your first step towards it?


Client: “I don’t want to feel anxious anymore.”

Practitioner: “So, how do you really want to feel?”

Client: “Not anxious.”

Practitioner: “So, if you are not anxious, how are you feeling?”

Client: “Well, calm and relaxed.”

Practitioner: “And what would be happening to let you know you were calm and relaxed?”

Client: “I would feel at ease and my body would be calm and contented.”

This would begin the well-formed outcome. We would ask the client to state the desired outcome positively.

If someone was asking for help to get a big house and car that would not be so well-formed because it may be context dependant on other factors such as the income that was being earned now, and the capabilities that person has now. The client would need to know how they were going to achieve the goal and what was happening to them that told them they had achieved it.

For the person wanting to be calm, the sensory based evidence would be that they felt in control of their mind and body perhaps, that they were doing things that previously would have caused anxiety. For the person wanting a big house and car, they might be saying that a new business or job will bring these rewards but they would need to be working hard and giving plenty of time to the business.

For the well-formed outcome to work we would need to explore the context. Who and where and when is the outcome wanted? Is being calm context dependent on a partner being more considerate? Is the big house and car dependant on selling the family home? Is it ecologically sound?  E.g. does the person have to rob a bank to get what he wants, or does the anxious person have to move out of the family home to find calmness? The well-formed outcome has to fit in with the client’s beliefs and values and to be ecologically sound.

A well-formed outcome will also preserve existing benefits. Every behaviour has a positive intention, so the person with anxiety would want to maintain some anxiety if it has a benefit such as walking down a dark road and seeing somebody suspicious walking towards them. They would in that case need to feel some anxiety that would allow them to take action if necessary.

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