The Centre for Solution Focused Practice

'Don't think, but observe.'

‘I began to notice, with increasing irritation, my need to describe and define what I observed, when all I really wanted was for the sea simply to be the sea. I found myself constantly thinking of it in terms of something else, as if I were reading it for meaning, which was not what I thought I wanted to do at all.’
Jenny Diski ‘Stranger on a Train’ p 14

Jenny Diski, describing her experience during the course of a slow sea crossing of the Atlantic Ocean, beautifully describes an experience that many of us, attempting to get to grips with the Solution Focused approach, will have experienced. Steve de Shazer (2005), following Wittgenstein’s injunction ‘Don’t think, but look!’ (1958, #66), wrote a paper setting out some of his thoughts regarding the relationship between Wittgensteinian philosophy and Solution Focused Brief Therapy which he entitled ‘Don’t think but observe’. So what sense does this idea that we are not thinking make to me? Whilst I would not hope to understand the complicated philosophy to which de Shazer is alluding I do understand a number of things which are closer to my practice experience. I do know that while I am sitting with clients I am not trying to understand them. I am not trying to figure them out, I am not trying to appreciate where they are coming from. In a very strange and particular sense, and I say this with hesitation, I am not interested in my client’s lives, I am not curious in the conventional sense of the word, even if it is likely that my client’s experience will be one of real interest in them on my part, an important paradox perhaps.

So what am I doing while I sit with clients? The first task is, as far as I am able, to contribute all that I can to the construction of an interactional context which will allow clients to do what they need to do to change. As far as I can see clients require to be able to reflect on a set of questions offered by the worker and to be able to generate answers to those questions. Eve Lipchik (2002) refers to this aspect of the worker’s task in terms of the need ‘to establish and maintain a relationship with clients that makes them feel supported while they adapt or change’ (p25). As it happens I believe that the introduction of the term ‘relationship’ is unhelpful and somewhat mystifying thereby making the worker’s job less clear, however it does seem clear to me that I am working hard with clients to co-construct a potentially fruitful context. (More on all this another time perhaps.)

The second task is to listen. ‘Don’t think, but listen!’ perhaps. Of course we listen. All therapists and counsellors listen. But what are we listening for? What I think that the Solution Focused practitioner is listening for are potential ‘hooks’ in the client’s answers, things the client says to which we can attach a solution focused question. We might call them ‘conversational opportunities’ or ‘solution focused openings’. The client might be involved in recounting a long problem focused story of how tough things have been for him. The worker listens and listens and acknowledges and validates and listens and listens and then at a certain point hears the client say ‘just getting through the day has been really, really difficult’. And suddenly we hear the practitioner shifting position from acknowledging and validating to asking ‘so what have you been doing to get through the days, given that it has been really difficult?’ The worker has heard a potential opening, an opportunity, has spotted a hook which will allow the possibility of a change of direction in the conversation. Insoo Kim Berg picked up and liked to use Peter Cantwell and Sophie Holmes’ (1994) phrase ‘leading from one step behind’, and this is what I think that we are doing here, shifting the focus of the conversation based on something that the client has said.

And the third thing that I am doing? Unfortunately this will merely highlight my own limitation. I have found it too difficult to quell, to put to sleep the ‘wanting-to-make-sense’, the ‘wanting-to-understand’ bit of me. And telling that bit of me just to stop – ‘just stop doing it’ – ‘just listen’ – is, as Jenny Diski made clear to us as she was trying to allow ‘the sea simply to be the sea’, very very difficult. So I have given my ‘making-sense’ capacity a relatively benign job to keep it busy and to stop it from doing things that are less helpful. I have allowed myself to listen through the talking for evidence of strengths and skills and resources and competencies. I allow myself to think ‘what is this telling me about the client’s capacities?’. I very rarely do anything with the thoughts that I have, I would virtually never articulate my conclusions, since the material will not have come from the client, but allowing myself to muse in this way does not seem to be too harmful!

Evan George

Cantwell, Peter & Holmes, Sophie. (1994). Social construction: A paradigm shift for systemic therapy and training. Australia and New Zealand Journal for Family Therapy, 15(1), 17-26.
de Shazer, Steve. (2005) Don’t think but Observe: What is the importance of the work of Ludwig Wittgenstein for Solution-Focused Brief Therapy?
Downloaded from sfbta website 20 August 2016
Diski, Jenny. (2002) Stranger on a Train London: Virago Press
Lipchik, Eve. (2002) Beyond Technique in Solution-Focused Therapy New York: Guildford Press
Wittgenstein, Ludwig. (1953) Philosophical Investigations Oxford: Blackwell Press