There are many ways to conduct a Solution Focused session with a family. Here are my 10 guidelines.
1. Remember, Solution Focused interviews are simple, not easy but simple, and the biggest challenge, especially in the face of complexity, is to keep them simple.
2. Remember the three things we are curious about:
Where is it all going (the client’s ‘best hopes’ from the session)
What might it look like in the client’s day-to-day life (a detailed description of the hoped-for outcome)
How much of it is already happening (Instances, exceptions and scales)
3. One round at a time. Ask each person for their best hopes from the session, then each some description of their hopes realised, then each person a scale or other means to discover how much of the hoped-for future is already happening. In effect these are just a number of interwoven ‘individual’ sessions in the presence of other family members.
4. This is the difficult bit! Negotiating each person’s outcome in a way that does not conflict with the rest. This means we must sometimes distinguish between the desired outcome and the client’s idea of how to get there. A parent’s hope might be that “He gets himself home on time”; if this is followed by a “What difference will that make?” is likely to eventually arrive at “We’d be getting along better as a family”. The son might complain that they are always on at him so his hope might be to not be picked on all the time which is also likely to lead to getting along better. With each family member, just as with each individual client, the most productive outcomes tend to be ones associated with getting on with life in a satisfactory way.
5. It’s obvious but it’s something else that’s not easy – don’t take sides, stay benignly neutral. This is difficult if one family member is behaving in a way you disapprove of – perhaps a parent being over-demanding of a child, or one member of the family putting down another. Unless the behaviour crosses a boundary into untenable abuse, we stay neutral and ask our next question. Not being diverted but sticking confidently to the task of asking SF questions usually brings the family into a more collaborative mode.
6. Don’t lay down rules about turn taking, one person at a time and such like – it is more likely to alienate the family than help the sessions and if they get a ‘telling off’ when the rule is broken the potential value of the session is much diminished. You might have to pause to deal with an interruption e.g. Thank you, we’ll come back to that; please don’t forget that, I’d like to ask you about it later; or just physically pause until the interruption has finished and then carry on exactly where you left off; or lean forward towards the person you are talking to so the interruption is physically blocked. The key, always (except when it isn’t) is to stay in charge of the substantive conversation. But no easy way. We all have to find our own way to develop our confidence and authority as ‘conversation managers’.
7. Take what everyone says at face value, the alternative is to start a conversation in your head about what the client ‘really’ means. Apart from diverting you from listening your client is likely to pick up your lack of trust. These things happen to us all so part of the SF discipline when you find yourself having a conversation in your head is to switch to listening even more carefully to the client.
8. Forget body language, you’re probably not as fluent as you think! Body language happens, it’s part of our spoken language as is tone, emphasis and all the non-verbal aspects of conversations. Trying to be conscious of your own will just reduce your authenticity and trustworthiness and commenting on the ‘non-verbals’ of your clients will divert you from the task of asking your questions. A common example is a client crying. Tears can come from anything between abject misery and absolute joy and the best way to respond is as a fellow human being: it may be through our facial expression, the way we pause in our questioning, the offer of a tissue (perhaps asking before thrusting) and maybe the offer of a break or simply asking if it’s okay to carry on. Mostly, the most useful thing then is to pick up exactly where you left off.
9. Choose who to start with. Our job is to manage the conversational process so that everyone has a chance to be asked and answer our questions. If one family member made the referral that person is a good starting point, otherwise it makes sense to start with the person most likely to respond. It is also possible to ask the family who would like to start but you then need to be confident that you can handle the response, including silence. Then make sure everyone has an equality of opportunity to answer your questions remembering that some will take longer than others (e.g. a child might go through a number of “don’t know”s in order to reach an answer; a parent might have to get some complaints on the table before hearing the actual questions being asked; and sometimes an answer will come straight away so that client’s turn is short in terms of time but equal in terms of responses.
10. Don’t take all day! A large family does not need to take more time than a single client. I can’t say that I know why but our outcomes demonstrate the point. With a large group just one small interactional ‘tomorrow’ description from each person seems to work as does one recent experience of something working well from each person. A lot of people saying a little appears to work as well as one person saying a lot.
Safeguarding goes without saying – see the Blog posted on 27th February 2019.