Words are troublesome for Solution Focused practitioners. We choose to take them seriously. We assume that they are all that we have and so we have become hyper-sensitised to words and how they are used. Some of you may know of my long struggles with the word ‘but’. There was a time when I would blush on each occasion that I heard it emerging from my mouth, always unmeant, taking me unawares, catching me out and revealing the thinking that I had thought to have banished from my repertoire. The feeling was a little like the experience that we have in that dream when we find ourselves out in public without a vital part of our clothing, trousers for example, revealing to the world that which we would prefer to leave hidden.
And there are other words which bother me. I get really upset when I hear practitioners using the word ‘damaged’ to describe children. I typically find myself wanting to jump up and down and shout and argue, and I know if I say anything at that very moment I will risk sounding rude and so I let it go by until I have calmed myself down and then try to find a more collegial question which will more effectively serve the interests of the young person. ‘Damaged’ seems so limiting of children’s potential, reducing our hopes and dreams for that child and tempting us to settle for something that is just not good enough rather than choosing to believe in the child’s capacity, looking for evidence of that capacity and then putting our shoulders to the wheel, as it were, and working together for something better.
‘Cutter’ has the same effect on me. The term seems to be used, as a professional shorthand, to describe young people who manage the challenges facing them by cutting themselves and yet the word is an abuse of every young person so described. The word is a travesty. The word should be banned because it fails to acknowledge the young person, it assumes that the young person in all their complexity can be adequately categorised in relation to this one feature of their behaviour; and what is more even in relation to that element of the young person’s behaviour the word lies. The word cutter is dishonest because it fails to acknowledge that every child who cuts also does not cut. There will be times that the child is not even thinking of cutting and there will be times when the child or young person does feel the urge to cut and resists that urge. So the child is not a ‘cutter’, the child is a ‘cutter and a non-cutter and a not-even-thinking-of-cutting and a resisting-the-urge-to-cutter’. And if we leave these latter elements out of the description we diminish the child and fail to do that child justice and limit the child’s possibilities – psychological abuse (in my view).
You can probably see by now just how sensitive to words we are! So what is it about the question ‘how does that make you feel?’ that bothers me? There are I think at least two problems with it. The first relates to the structure of and the implications within the question and the second relates more to the way that the question is typically deployed within therapeutic conversations. As regards the implication implicit in the question, it seems to me that the question suggests a lack of control on the client’s part, a passivity, a lack of agency. Something external is framed as ‘making’ the client ‘feel’ something. The client is framed as a victim of external forces. From a Solution Focused point of view this is something that I would never ever wish to imply or to suggest. I am constantly interested in co-constructing a narrative of self in the client’s life that fits with the client being likely to be successful in achieving their best hopes rather than inviting our clients to perceive themselves as passive victims of circumstance and of others’ behaviour towards them. And in addition I am struck by how the question is typically used. Perhaps because the larger part of traditional therapy and counselling is problem-focused and the client is invited to describe hurts and pains, the ‘how does that make you feel?’ question often follows a description of a painful event.
Client: I had a really tough time last night.
Therapist: Ah ha.
Client: Yes my partner came in late, (s)he’d been drinking, and when I just asked how come (s)he was so late (s)he said that it was none of my business anyway and what did I have to complain about, that I had a nice house and money and that I should be grateful.
Therapist: So how did that make you feel?
Client: It made me feel awful, it made me feel worthless, that I have no value, that no-one would respect me, that I am unloveable.
This amplification of failure, inviting the client into a narrative of worthlessness, seems to me to teeter on the borders of the unethical. Imagine what might have been different if the worker had asked instead ‘so what pleased you about the way that you responded to your partner?’ This question holds the possibility for the emergence of a wholly different narrative ‘I was really pleased that I stayed calm and did not get into an argument’. ‘Wow- so how did you manage that?’, a response that centralises the client’s resourcefulness and capacity. Or for example we could ask ‘so what have you learnt from this episode that could be useful to you in the future?’. Or we might ask ‘If your partner were to behave in the same way again how would you like to see yourself responding in a way that is just right for you and just right for your life?’. As therapists we are really, really, not obliged to ask ‘so how does that make you feel?’ and in my view the less that this question is used the better for most of our clients.