How many of us enjoyed our homework when at school? Not many I would guess. It always seemed to me an intrusion into my free time, an imposition that was only completed to avoid the awful consequences of failing to submit it on time.
I was reminded of this just last week when a participant on a course observed, slightly puzzled, that Solution Focused Brief Therapy does not seem to give clients ‘homework’ and I admitted that this was indeed the case. So why not? Why don’t we?
Well first of all there is the word. Why would I want to associate the change process with something that many of us experienced as tedious, miserable, something to be completed as quickly as possible? Surely we would want to frame change as something interesting, riveting, exciting. And then of course the word homework comes with inevitable ‘power implications’. Only those in a more powerful position, adults and teachers, can give homework to others in a less powerful position, children. Why would I want to reference this particular power relationship in the context of a therapeutic approach which seeks to diminish the difference as much as is possible? And finally homework tends to be specific, in other words we tend to specify what the client should be doing and sometimes even when and how often and for how long. In so doing we create an extremely risky situation. What if the client does not carry through, does not complete? Since we have specified it the client’s failure risks being experienced as a challenge to our status and authority and just as failure to turn in assignments at school could lead to punishment, detention for example, clients risk being punished in therapy as well. Whilst in therapy there are no detentions, the client can be punished and the way that punishment operates is the way that the therapist begins to think about the client. Therapists begin to describe the client differently, as not motivated, or as resistant or indeed as benefitting from their problem and not wanting to change. The client’s status is in this way attacked and the client becomes a ‘bad client’.
So if SFBT does not do ‘homework’, what do we do? Well some of us ‘offer suggestions’. Why suggestions rather than homework. Well it is words again. We can really only ‘offer’ a suggestion and if a suggestion is turned down it is more likely to be seen as a reflection on the ‘offerer of the suggestion’ than on the ‘suggested to’. The only trouble now is for the worker – next time I need to come up with something more fitting, a much more useful thought than the thought ‘this client is resistant’! And if I offer a generic suggestion such as ‘between now and next time we meet you might like to watch out for anything that you find yourself doing that is moving your life in a good direction’, then the likelihood of success is maximised. The client is almost inevitably going to find her/himself doing something useful. And then I can add to the excitement by saying ‘and it will be really interesting to see where you decide to start making changes, at home, or at college, or with your friends or somewhere else’. The change is framed as virtually inevitable the only question is where the client starts.
Words really are important. They matter. They make a difference and so we must take care about the word that we choose.