There is a down-side to being a trainer. You are obliged to spend a substantial amount of time listening to yourself talking. Indeed if we are being honest we are even obliged to hear ourselves telling the same jokes, not once, not twice but often more frequently than that. However listening to ourselves talking also has an up-side because listening to ourselves talking certainly helps us to get clear about what it is that is important to us, what it is that gets us out of bed (as it were). And what I have discovered about what is important to me has been something of a surprise. It had not occurred to me until relatively recently that the Solution Focused approach itself is not the thing that I care about most.
Now don’t get me wrong, I do love SFBT and I do think that it is a wonderful approach to working with clients but what I really love is the stance towards clients that is implicit within the model. Using the Solution Focused approach requires us both to trust and to believe in our clients, it requires us to enter into a real partnership with clients and makes it likely that we will end up by truly admiring them.
Trust. Trust is central in SF. We choose to work with what the client gives us and we choose to assume that what the client says is what the client means. Many approaches do not take this position. The worker may well be happy to receive referral information from the referrer and thus to know more than the client knows that the worker knows, whereas in SFBT we prefer to work with what the client chooses to tell us, leaving the client in charge of what we know. Similarly in SFBT there is no ‘really’, we prefer not to distinguish between what the client says and what the client means. We work with what the client gives us and we trust the client to tell us everything that we might need to know at the time that is right for the client. Our clients are, in this sense, ‘trustworthy’, and we avoid somehow knowing more or knowing ‘better’.
Belief. In SF we choose to adopt a particular stance, a position in relation to the clients with whom we work. We choose to assume that they have the capacity to make the changes that they wish to make – until proved otherwise. On training courses I sometimes show a piece of work with a mother and her two teenage boys and the family’s social worker is also in the room. At one point the mother says that she would like the boys’ father to be more involved in parenting and sharing responsibility. At this point a recent participant wondered whether I might not have asked the social worker if she could ‘take this issue on’. Of course that would seem a perfectly sensible question to ask and yet from a Solution Focused perspective this might imply that I did not believe in the client’s capacity to sort out whatever needed to be sorted out with the father and so of course I wouldn’t and didn’t. During the course of this same piece of work both the teenage boys specify changes that they wish to make in their lives, the older boy wishing to have more control over anger and the younger to have more confidence. Having showed the clip of work recently I commented that I only saw the family together for three meetings, although the mother chooses to return a few more times on her own. Again a recent participant expressed concern whether the boys’ ‘goals’ had been achieved during the course of those sessions and thus should I not have continued working with the boys as well until the specified changes were in place. My view is that if I believe in my clients’ capacities then when they say that they are ready to finish, then the are ready to finish, and that the mother will be in a perfectly good position to help her older son with anger and her younger son with his confidence, which is after all how most families work; they do not require a therapist to ‘sort out’ their issues for them. So ‘belief’ in my clients’ capacities challenges me not to become over-helpful and to start taking over responsibility for the family, inviting me rather to become curious about the family’s own way of addressing the issues which they face.
Partnership. The concept of partnership is central to SF practice. Partners must be consulted and their feedback taken seriously. When we ask ‘are we talking about the right things’, or ‘is this making sense’, or ‘what if anything has been of use to you in our conversation today’ we really mean it and are interested in the answer. And if the client is of the view that what we are doing does not make sense then we will ask the client for their thoughts about what we could focus on that might be more useful, rather than reading their response as a marker of resistance or of a reluctance to change. When we ask the client’s permission to ask some questions we are treating the client as we would a partner, someone of equal status, rather than assuming the right to ask whatever we like and taking the view that it is the client’s job to answer. When we say to the client that there is no need to answer any question that they would prefer not to answer, we mean just that. The client should feel that their preferences and choices are respected.
Admiration. Since I gave up thinking that I had the solutions to clients’ problems and learnt to ask questions to elicit their own best ways towards the life that they want to build, I have consistently been astounded by my clients’ creativity. Since I have stopped enquiring about the impact of difficulties on the client and instead have focused on how the client has coped, I have constantly been struck by my clients’ fortitude, by their resilience and their determination. Since I have adopted Solution Focused Brief Therapy as my default approach I have come to admire my clients more than I ever have in the past and have learnt a great deal more from them about how to live my own life.
Of course I love SFBT as a model of therapy. I love the way that we work on such a restricted canvas, using the ‘same’ questions and yet eliciting such different responses. I love the minimalism, the simplicity, the relative lack of jargon. I love sitting down with a new client and having no idea of what they will be talking about and having no idea of what they should be talking about. I love listening to clients surprising themselves with their responses, reinventing themselves answer by answer. I love clients realising ‘we can do this’. But more than all of that I love the trust and belief and the partnership and the admiration that lie at the heart of Solution Focused practice.