The Centre for Solution Focused Practice

‘Relapses’: a brief note

In some fields, most notably in the field of addictions, the concept of ‘relapsing’ is so embedded that it has been ‘transferred’ to clients, to such an extent that occasionally clients will return reporting that they have ‘relapsed’, or perhaps more commonly that they have ‘done it again’. This raises the question ‘when is a relapse not a relapse?’ or perhaps even ‘is a relapse ever a relapse?’. A client was talking with me recently, on Zoom of course, and told me that he had had ‘another melt-down’; he was disappointed since this had not happened for some time,. As we talked I invited him to be curious about what was different about this particular ‘melt-down’ and at this point he ‘remembered’ that the melt-down had lasted less long, that he had removed himself from the public context within which it started and thus had shielded himself and others from the worst effects, and after some more questions he ‘remembered’ that this particular iteration of the ‘melt-down’ pattern had been less severe. My client had therefore at first privileged in his recall the sameness and yet as we talked came more and more to notice the difference. This ‘melt-down’ was very different and came to be construed by him as a real marker of the progress that he had been making over the previous months. During the course of our talking he changed the meaning that this event held for him. Solution Focused questions are difference focused. We invite people to think about ‘what difference’ the presence of their best hopes in their lives will make, we invite people to describe in detail that different, or perhaps alternative, future and we invite people to discover differences in the past, times when the past better fitted the preferred future. And of course our focus on difference also applies to so-called relapses. Human beings tend, it has seemed to me through many years of clinical practice, to notice sameness. If one part of the established and normally problematic pattern occurs then the risk is that people act as if the whole of the pattern has occurred and respond as if that is indeed the case – any difference is unnoticed, invisible. However it is, as we can see, the difference that the Solution Focused practitioner will invite into view and noticing difference tends to be associated with hopefulness and a sense of possibility, hence questions such as: ‘and what was different about this melt-down compared with previous meltdowns?’, ‘and what pleased you about the way that you handled this particular melt-down?’. The differences based on these two questions will be found in the past and yet differences can also be located in the future: ‘and what have you learned from this melt-down that might be useful to you in the future?’, ‘and if you found yourself in that situation again how would you know that you were at your best, the (best hopes) version of you?’. Denise Yusuf told me a similar story a while ago. She was working with a young person who had been sent to see her in an educational setting. A member of staff reported that the young person had ‘done it again’, had lost control, and it is only fair to say that in the past when the young person lost control both the student and others were put at risk through the behaviour. Those around the student were right to be concerned. However while Denise was talking with the young person it became evident that something unusual and interesting had happened and yet had not been noticed, namely that the problem pattern had not occurred in its ‘normal’ entirety, that the student had interrupted the pattern, had found control earlier, and had ‘put the chair down’. The student, no doubt fearing a ‘why did you do it conversation’ and perhaps arriving prepared with self-mitigations, ‘it wasn’t my fault’, instead found an adult focusing on ‘how on earth did you manage to put the chair down given that you felt really angry and upset?’. This opening celebratory tone and focus built the platform for ‘and what could you learn from this situation that could be useful for you and your education in the future?’. As John Lubbock wrote ‘what we see depends mainly on what we look for’ while Heraclitus, some 2400 years earlier reminded us that ‘you cannot step into the same river twice’, that change is constant and that each iteration of a pattern is by definition different. The Solution Focused approach embodies both of these ideas. You can find more of Denise's thinking in her latest book: Yusuf, D. (ed.) (2021) The Solution Focused Approach with Children and Young People: Current Thinking and Practice. London: Routledge now available Evan George London 29th November 2020


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