When I was being taught French, many years ago, I was introduced to the concept of the false friend. These were words that led you astray, just like a false friend might; words that sounded like a similar sounding word in English but meant something different. Why do I seem to recall that ‘beer’ came into my French teacher’s explanation?
Well perhaps a ‘false idea’ is an idea that seems obvious but can run us into trouble. And an example of this is the notion that Solution Focus is a ‘positive approach’. And of course in every possible every-day, run-of-the-mill sort of way, Solution Focus is a ‘positive’ approach. When describing Solution Focus to people new to it they almost invariably comment along the lines of ‘it sounds very positive’ and clients describing their experience of Solution Focus are highly likely to comment that the work was very ‘positive’. So why quibble with what seems ‘common sense’ to almost everybody. Well the trouble is that I think that this idea can lead us astray.
1. When we describe the approach as being ‘positive’ there is a danger that we start ‘listening for the positives’. What’s the problem with that you might ask. Well the problem is precisely that when we start doing that there is a danger that we will begin to centralise our own judgement, our own evaluation, about what is positive and what is not. And Solution Focus works so hard to centralise the client - not what we think is positive but what does the client want and what is the client doing that fits with their ‘best hopes’, in other words what they want. So in that sense it might be important to hold in mind that Solution Focus is not about ‘being positive’ but about ‘being solution focused’.
2. And then there is another risk if we start thinking that the job of the solution focused worker is (see above) to ‘be positive’ namely that we will fail to acknowledge the client’s distress, because the distress is not ‘positive’. I have always enjoyed and found useful our good friend Bill O’Hanlon’s idea that when working we should always have ‘one foot in acknowledgement and the other in possibility’ and that we are always shifting our weight from one to the other as the client requires. Is acknowledging distress ‘being positive’? Probably not but it is a core necessity in most solution focused conversations.
3. And further when that idea of ‘positivity’ rears its risky head there is the danger that we will be tempted to ‘cheer lead’ in a way that leaves the client floundering in the wake of our enthusiasm for their achievement – never a great idea. The client does something that they have not done for a while. The ‘thing done’ fits with the preferred future and we verbally, metaphorically perhaps, leap up and down with our enthusiasm. But if the client’s evaluation is less enthusiastic than our own then, as Brian Cade has said, the worker ‘steals all the available enthusiasm’, the client sitting back perplexed and questioning ‘it wasn’t that great – all I did was get the children to school on time!’ If we had just paused, stopped ‘being positive’ and had kept the client centred ‘how pleased are you with that’, we could have got our tone right and the client could have enjoyed the success!
So three examples of why the word ‘positive’ might not help us in our work, even when common sense tells us that that is precisely what the client experiences.