The Centre for Solution Focused Practice

What do we do when we are stuck?


Even using Solution Focus on occasions it begins to become obvious that the client is not changing. Nothing is better. The client is not moving up on her scale. No-one in the client’s life is noticing any change or difference or progress. The client does not report that she is ‘coping’ any better. We all seem to be stuck! What do we do then?

The first thing of course is to remember Mark Beyebach. Mark’s research on stuckness is very clear. If there is no reported change by the end of the third session the worst option is for the same worker to carry on doing the same thing. If it isn’t working we really do have to do something different and Mark suggests to us that either the same worker using a different approach or a change of worker is more likely to bring benefits for the client than ‘more of the same’. Of course by that time we might already have considered other changes, perhaps seeing family members separately, perhaps inviting the client to bring someone else to the next session, perhaps asking for permission to invite a colleague to join us. But in the end we do have to ‘do something different’.

However before introducing radical changes there are a few things that might be worth trying.

1. Check it out with the client ‘You’ve come here three times already and I am not sure that our talking has made any difference at all – would I be right?’ We need to make it very easy for the client to say that nothing has changed, because otherwise our clients are likely to just want to be nice to us. They may still want to be kind ‘well it has been really good talking with you/getting it all off my chest/just having space for myself’ and we will have to stay strong ‘sure – I’m glad that it has – but I’m still not convinced that our talking has yet made any real difference in your life’. You will notice the ‘yet’ in there and the ‘but’, both purposefully used. However we will need not to allow our desire to hear the client say ‘you’ve been useful to me’ get in the way of acknowledging that actually nothing has changed.
2. So if the client agrees that nothing has changed the first step might be to go back to the client’s ‘best hopes’. Did we get it right? What does the client want? Have we begun to work to our own idea of what the client might want? Have we got confused between the client’s best hopes and the referrer’s best hopes? Let’s just check it out again. If this process redefines the best hopes then away we go, back into a traditional Solution Focused conversation
3. However if this confirms that we had ‘got it right’, that we were talking about the right thing, then a series of scales might be useful.
We could start with an ‘importance scale’: ‘On a scale of 0 – 10 with 10 standing for this is the most important thing facing you in your life right now and 0 standing for OK I’m here and talking with you about this but if I’m being really honest it doesn’t bother me very much, I can happily live like this, where would you put yourself?’ If the client gives us a relatively low response then we could ask ‘so given that is it worth it to you putting in all the hard work to have things change?’ We could of course use the same scale question to establish who in the system is most bothered and just work with that person, the person who most wants change, if that is, we do have a legitimate foot in the client’s life. If we do not have any legitimacy in working for a change that the client is not much bothered about then of course, in the nicest possible way, we will say goodbye.
4. There are other scales that might be useful here ‘On a scale of 0 to 10 with 10 standing for ‘I’d do anything to change things’ and 0 for the opposite of that, where would you put things on that scale?’ If the client were to answer with a low number on the scale we might be interested in ‘given that tell me about what it would seem right for you to do to turn things around?’
5. And of course a confidence scale ‘On a scale of 0 to 10 how confident are you that you that it is possible to make these changes, 10 completely certain and 0 the opposite?’ and if the client responds with a low number on this scale we might choose to return again to the best hopes ‘so what are your best hopes of what could realistically come out of our talking together that would tell you that this had been worthwhile?’

This series of questions are of course merely helping the client to ensure that we are talking about the right thing and that the client’s best hope is salient and feasible and something that the client is prepared to work hard towards.

Assuming that at the end of this conversation the client is indeed clear that we are talking about the right things and that the best hopes are salient and feasible then two further questions appear in the solution focused literature although both take us to the very edge of the solution focused approach if not, in fact, a little beyond.

1. Insoo Kim Berg used to advocate, in these circumstances, asking the client ‘this is going to seem a strange question but could there be a good reason for keeping things the same, for not changing?’ Key to being able to ask this question, in my view, in the context of solution focused practice, is the phrase ‘good reason’, an idea that we offer to the client for their consideration, rather than an ‘expert’ assumption on our part, a ‘knowing-better’.
2. And of course edging back to the origins of our approach in the world of the MRI problem resolution brief therapy, we can ask ‘what do you know about what absolutely does not work for you and is not worth repeating in trying to move things forward?’ As Steve de Shazer might have said when we eliminate what does not work anything else might!

Thanks to the Carmarthenshire EPS, with whom I have just spent two very enjoyable days, for provoking me to organise my thinking around ‘stuckness’. I hope that it might in some ways be useful to others.

Evan George
January 2017



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