On September 9th 2005, just two days before his death, Steve de Shazer saw two clients at BRIEF in London with a group observing the sessions. The morning session was fascinating. The client initially found it hard to ‘get’ Steve’s questions. How could she know what her mother would notice. How could she know about the future she wondered until it happened. And then she did get it and we see her on a roll describing her life going better and her responses are, for me at least, painfully touching. And during the course of her description she says ‘ I will use my manners, which I’m not very good with’. Recently I have begun to wonder whether she might not have been talking here for all of us, for psychotherapy and counselling and coaching, as well as for medicine, social work, nursing and psychology. Perhaps historically we have not always been very good with our manners either.
What stimulated this thought was a comment, some months ago, on a course that I was leading. I had shown a piece of my work with a family and I had invited the participants to discuss what they had seen before we all talked together. One of the participants opened the discussion commenting ‘you do say thank-you a lot’. And she was right, drawing my attention to something that is so much a taken-for-granted piece of my practice that it had become invisible to me, I had stopped noticing it. And actually saying ‘thank-you’ is only one part of a typical interactional sequence in my work. The first part of the sequence is ‘asking permission’ - ‘could I ask you some questions’, ‘could I ask you some more questions’, ‘could I come back to what we were talking about earlier’, ‘are you OK to sit there quietly while I ask your sons some questions’. These ‘asking permission’ questions are dotted all over my work, almost invariably followed, when the client has responded in the affirmative, with a ‘thank-you’.
So why is this important? On reflection what I think that it does is to inform the client, indirectly, how we are defining and understanding the nature of the engagement between us. Is the client’s role essentially being defined as ‘passive’ in the sense that the client is being expected to answer the questions that we ask, whatever those might be? And if the client demurs then their reluctance is framed as ‘resistance’ with the threat of ‘bad client status’ looming before them. Or is the client being treated and regarded as autonomous, someone who has the right either to answer or not, a partner whose preferences must be respected? It is of course the latter view that fits the Solution Focused approach. Whether or not we may choose to formalise that view in these linguistic formulations, my ‘pleases’ and ‘thank-yous’, nonetheless please and thank-you must underpin the client-worker interaction. And if clients say ‘no’ we must always assume that they have their own very good reasons for so saying!