We all know what questions are about – don’t we? We ask questions when we want to know things, when we are seeking information about something, when we are curious about something, when we want answers. Indeed Q’s and A’s, questions and answers, go together like hot and cold, like summer and winter, like night and day, like problem and solution; one implies the other and the other forms a shadow presence in our minds, in our thinking even if only one part of the duo is mentioned. When we hear the world ‘question’, its partner word ‘answer’ is implied – it is there for us whether it rushes forward to take centre stage in our thinking or lurks in the shadows. But typically it is not only the word ‘answer’ that is called forth by the word ‘question’; a whole little gang of words and ideas turn up at the same time, perhaps less predictably and a little less reliably, but frequently enough for us to be able to take their presence for granted rather than being surprised and having to ask ‘what are you doing here’ or ‘who invited you in’. The staunchest members of the Q. and A. gang are ‘information’, ‘knowledge’ and ‘curiosity’, but their friends ‘interview’, cross-examination’ and ‘inquiry’ also turn up from time to time.
However let’s step back for a moment before going on again. Are questions really always about answers? Let’s think for a moment about a traveller lost in a city who approaches a local resident and asks ‘do you know the way to the station’. Most of us, if we were that traveller, would be pretty disappointed if the local resident were to answer ‘yes’ and then walk off. What about the teacher who asks her class ‘what is 464 minus 78’. Surely, we should politely assume, the teacher already knows the answer before asking the question, so she is not looking for information. Something else is going on here. Consider the shopper who enters a bookshop and asks ‘Do you have a copy of that excellent guide to Solution Focused Brief Therapy ‘100 key points and techniques’ by Ratner, George and Iveson’. What sort of question is this? And finally we have the therapist who asks the client, sometimes on a number of occasions during a session, ‘could I ask you some questions about that’. None of these seeming ‘questions’, after all they could all have question marks at their ends, quite seem to work within the dominant ‘question/answer’ paradigm, the ‘information/curiosity/knowledge’ context that does fit the child asking the parent ‘how many stars are there in the sky mum’ or the student asking the teacher ‘in what year did Charles Dickens write Barnaby Rudge’. So how might it be better to think about the question examples that we have considered? It seems to make much more sense if we think of these questions as embedded in forms of activity and only making sense in the specific context within which they are asked. So here we have questions embedded within a range of human activities, namely travelling, teaching and testing, shopping and politeness and building cooperation, and only if the respondents, the questioned, understand the context, will they respond appropriately, will the local say ‘first left, second right and then you will see the station at the bottom of the road’ rather than merely ‘yes’.
When people first come to Solution Focused Brief Therapy initially the format seems familiar, the professional is asking the client questions and the client is, for the most part, answering them and yet it is precisely this familiarity that is dangerous. The risk is that along with ‘question’ and ‘answer’ come ‘information’ and ‘knowledge’ and curiosity’ and that the worker assumes that the activity we are involved in is, the familiar, ‘understanding/assessment/knowing’. However what is harder to grasp is that Solution Focus has absolutely nothing to do with ‘understanding/assessment/knowing’ and so ‘information’ and ‘knowledge’ are irrelevant concepts and the idea of ‘curiosity’ is dangerous for us and can lead us into all sorts of traps and problems. So how can we better describe the activity within which Solution Focused questions naturally find their home?
Back in 1987 Karl Tomm may have offered us a partial answer in the second of three papers published in Family Process and entitled ‘Interventive Interviewing’, the second of which he called ‘Reflexive Questioning as a Means to Enable Self-Healing’. In the opening lines of the abstract he writes ‘Reflexive questioning is an aspect of interventive interviewing oriented toward enabling clients or families to generate new patterns of cognition and behavior on their own. The therapist adopts a facilitative posture and deliberately asks those kinds of questions that are liable to open up new possibilities for self-healing.’ (Tomm, 1987 p 167). There is a lot of this that resonates for me as a SF practitioner. The questions themselves are the intervention; they are primary not secondary. They are not conceptualised as serving the purpose of generating information for the shaping of an intervention. They really are all there is. And the questions are for the client they are not for the worker. The point of them is what clients hear themselves saying as they respond to the questions asked. Indeed although it would make it harder for the worker to generate delicately attuned questions, clients could remain completely silent and if the thoughts that they had in response to the worker’s questions were useful then this could be a perfectly effective SF process. So we are not seeking to learn anything about the client, we are not seeking to know anything about the client’s world, we are not seeking to understand our clients or to figure out what makes our clients click; all that we are seeking to do is to ask good questions as part of a self-reflexive process, questions which when asked deliberately and carefully can ‘serve to open up new possibilities’ (let’s drop the ‘self-healing’). So ‘understanding’, ‘knowledge’, ‘information’ must all be peeled away. They have nothing to do with Solution Focus, and the last to go is ‘curiosity’. We are not curious. We do not ask ‘curiosity’ questions. As soon as we accept the idea of curiosity we have to accept the idea that we want to know things; that is what it means to be curious. In SF we are doing something quite different – we are asking the client questions which invite the client into curiosity about themselves and their lives. That is the point . . . and it is different!
Karl Tomm (1987) Interventive Interviewing: Part 11. Reflexive Questioning as a Means to Enable Self-Healing. Family Process vol: 26 167-183