The Centre for Solution Focused Practice

Why should every client want an ignorant therapist or coach?

The word ‘ignorant’ has got itself a bad name. It has come to be used to describe a person who is rude, who lacks manners, who is uncouth, who does not, in other words, know how to behave. But originally the word merely conveyed a ‘not knowing’, an unawareness, as in the phrase ‘ignorance of the law is no excuse’. And there is a lot to be said for an ignorant, in the latter sense, therapist or coach and Solution focused workers are particularly good at being ignorant! So what is it that our ignorant Solution Focused coach or therapist doesn’t know? What are our ‘known unknowns’?

Well first of all we have no idea of what our client should want. Solution Focused Brief Therapy is after all a non-normative approach and so we have no way of knowing what is either right for people or good for them. We cannot know how the client should live his or her own life, except perhaps when safety is at stake. We will never make a distinction between what the client ‘wants’ and what we believe that the client, ‘needs’, thereby typically relegating the client’s knowing to second-class knowing, as many other therapists appear to do. Of course the up-side to your therapist ‘not knowing’ is that he or she will have to pay careful attention to what you want, your ‘best hopes’ from the talking, rather than encouraging you in the direction of what the therapist believes to be ‘right’ for you. This means that the client, and the client’s thinking, will be right at the centre of the work and that the therapist will be ‘serving’ you rather than ‘treating’ you. I always like to describe clients as those people we are working ‘for’, rather than the people that we are working ‘on’; our clients are our employers and few employees would risk disregarding their employers’ ‘best hopes’ for the organisation’s future and pursuing their own views irrespective.

So what else does the SF therapist or coach not know? Well not only do we not know how the client’s life should be but in addition we have no idea of the ‘right way’ for the client to make the changes described by the client in their preferred future picture. And the advantage to the client? If the worker has no view on the ‘best way’ forward then the worker will have to be paying hugely careful attention to discovering the client’s own best way of moving in the preferred direction and this will involve the worker in inviting the client to focus on all the instances, those elements of the preferred future already in place, and the exceptions, the times when the problem does not happen. Hidden within these instances and exceptions are valuable clues to the client as to their own best way of moving their life forward, clues that can be brought to light with the simple use of the question ‘how did you do that’. As the worker invites the client to notice these instances and exceptions and invites the client to become curious about these moments, clients will clarify their own ‘best way’ of constructing the preferred future and the more that that future is constructed in the client’s own best way the more sustainable that future is likely to be.

What else? Well if the Solution Focused worker does not know the best way forward then neither can that worker know what the client should be doing between sessions in order to bring about change, and so the worker will be prescribing no tasks or homework; there will be no action plans. But what is the advantage to clients of a worker who is not telling them what to do, or at the very least agreeing with them what they have agreed to do before the next session? What could possibly be the benefit of that? Well the complication for clients when tasks or homework or action plans are agreed occurs when the client doesn’t do what was agreed or prescribed. Sometimes in all good faith life gets in the way, or the client’s priorities change, or what seemed like a good idea when sitting with the worker no longer seems like a good idea in the clearer light of the client’s everyday life and so the client does not do what was agreed. But if the worker is one of those workers who believes that the client should do what was agreed then the client’s change of mind or priority can lead that worker into critical assumptions about the client, ideas like ‘this client is not motivated, or this client is resistant or this client likes having these problems, ‘secondary gain’, and does not want to change. And once the worker is thinking these thoughts then they are likely to get in the way of the therapeutic process and the likelihood of change diminishes. So clients may well be better off with an ‘ignorant’ Solution Focused worker who has no view on what the client should do between sessions, beyond the mildest of suggestions or perhaps benevolent warnings ‘if you decide to come back the first question that I will ask will be ‘what’s been better’, so if you start watching out now it might make your next session easier for you’. And whatever the client does is assumed to be the best that that client can do and so there is no way for the client to get into trouble with a worker who does not know what clients should be doing between sessions.

So if the Solution Focused worker does not know anything about the client’s life and what shape it should take, does not know anything about the client’s best way towards that life and does not know what the client should do between sessions what does the Solution Focused worker know? And the Solution Focused worker in my view knows about two things and they are hugely important. The SF worker knows how to create a context within which clients are likely to be able to do the work that they need to do and we know how to talk with clients in such a way that clients are likely to make the changes that they want. We are ‘expert conversationalists’. We are wilfully ignorant about the content of the client’s life but we are experts on the change process. And becoming as truly ignorant as we wish to be is not easy – it takes practice, it takes commitment, it takes huge commitment.

Evan George
London
January 2018