The Centre for Solution Focused Practice

Outward criteria

‘The uniform appearance of words such as “depression”, “happy”, “angry”, and “hope” encourages us to assume that the words refer to an entity about which we can generalise.’
Steve de Shazer
Private experience and the verb “to be”
in More than Miracles
(2007) p 135

Steve de Shazer helpfully reminds us here, closely following the thinking of Ludwig Wittgenstein, of the dangers that lurk hidden in the way that we use language. A client might describe himself as suffering from depression; indeed I recall a client who told me, immediately on sitting down, that he had been suffering from ‘clinical depression’ for the past 28 years, and the risk is that we begin to believe that we know what the client means. But of course we can’t know. As de Shazer says there is a temptation to “generalise”, to assume that the word “depression” in itself means something that is stable, regular, understandable. He then adds “in order for us to talk about, make sense of, and perhaps define, these inner processes, we need outward criteria that can be referenced by and shared with others” (2007, p 134). The question that Bill O’Hanlon might ask ‘so how do you do depression’ serves exactly that purpose, to establish “outward criteria that can be referenced by and shared with others”.

It is interesting that this commitment to establishing the “outward criteria” has been directly associated with one of the key critiques that has been made of Solution Focused Brief Therapy. Eve Lipchik (2002) has criticised what she refers to as “behaviorial descriptions of . . . goals” and the extent to which emotion talk has somehow been excluded from the solution focused process. And yet it seems, almost to the contrary, that it is in the attempt to establish the “outward criteria”, that we are taking emotion seriously. When the client says ‘I just want to be happy’ we could agree to accept that statement as meaningful in itself and move on asking ‘OK so you want to be happy, what else?’ The client may respond by saying ‘well just more confidence, I seem to be lacking that right now’ and on we go. But of course following de Shazer and Wittgenstein we will invite the client to establish the “outward criteria” so that we, potentially, but much more importantly clients themselves can begin to have more of an idea of what they mean by these words ‘happy’ and ‘confident’. If the client were to respond to our question ‘so how will you know that happy and confident are growing in your life’ by saying ‘well I’d be going out more, I hardly go out at all right now’, then as we continue to talk about ‘going out’ we are also talking with the client about ‘happy and confident’. The ideas are inseparable. The inner experience and the “outward criteria” are inseparably and intrinsically connected, when we talk about one we are addressing the other.

Naturally the same processes apply when the client is talking about negative emotions.
‘What are your best hopes from our talking together?’
‘Well I feel so guilty – I tell myself all the time that I didn’t do enough – that I should have done more.’
‘OK – and, it seems strange to ask, but are you happy to feel guilty or is that something that you would like to see changing?’
‘It’s time for it to change – it was all so long ago now.’
‘So if the guilt were to leave you what do you think, what would you want to take its place?’
‘Perhaps liking myself again . . . ‘
‘And if you were liking yourself again what difference would that make to your life?’
‘All the difference in the world?’
‘What difference?’
‘I’d begin to have a life again.’
‘And if you did have a life again what might you find yourself doing that you are not doing now?’
‘Just normal stuff – being able to go out, to see people again, work maybe . . . ‘

Clearly in this simplified conversation the worker is consistently moving out of emotion talk and is seeking to begin to establish “outward criteria”, but the ‘guilt’ and the ‘liking myself’ and the ‘having a life again’ and the ‘being able to go out’ are indivisible – when we are talking about any one of these we are talking about all the others. Just as when we use the word ‘night’ we are invoking into the conversation the idea of ‘day’, indeed the word ‘night’ has no meaning without the word ‘day’, our client above has constructed an analogous dichotomy or distinction. When we talk with the client about ‘being able to go out’ we are talking with the client indirectly about ‘I feel so guilty’; we cannot choose not to even if we wanted.

de Shazer, Steve, Dolan, Yvonne, Korman, Harry, Trepper, Terry, MacCollum, Eric and Berg, Insoo Kim (2007) More Then Miracles: the state of the art of solution focused therapy. New York: Haworth.
Lipchik, Eve (2002) Beyond Technique in Solution-Focused Therapy. New York: Guildford.

Evan George


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