The Centre for Solution Focused Practice

Do we take our clients seriously?

 

‘Don’t you think that there is a risk that your clients may not feel that they are being taken seriously, that they are being understood?’ 

1. There are, it seems to me, a range of possible answers and the first may sound, initially at least, rather flippant perhaps even somewhat disrespectful. We could answer by saying ‘well maybe it doesn’t matter’. This sort of answer of course tends to provoke further questioning and in response we could justify this first answer by arguing that since the evidence shows that the clients of practitioners who describe themselves as Solution Focused change and since that change is well-maintained, that whether or not clients feel that we are taking them seriously and whether or not clients feel understood in Solution Focused practice may actually be irrelevant. Surely the only thing that matters is whether or not the client changes.

2. An alternative approach is to ask the questioner a question ‘why do you think that it is important for the client to feel that the worker is taking them seriously, for them to feel understood?’ Most people at this point will refer to the therapeutic relationship and the significance of the relationship in the change process as evidenced through the ‘Common Factors’ research. And if we ask further ‘so what is your theory regarding the importance of the therapeutic relationship in the change process?’, people will often talk about ‘trust’, the ‘building of trust’ and the necessity for ‘trust’ for people to engage with us. If we then point the questioner to a sample of our recorded work and ask ‘does it look as if the client is engaging, are they behaving in a way that fits with a trusting relationship?’, people invariably answer in the affirmative. Indeed people often ask somewhat puzzled ‘so which session is this?’ when I am showing a client early in a first session talking with remarkable openness and disclosing events in their life that it is assumed would only be disclosed by a trusting client fully engaged in the therapeutic process. Observers are often surprised to see the client relating in this way so early in a piece of work.

3. The difficulty with people new to the Solution Focused approach seeing that clients are feeling that they are being taken seriously, is that most people define the sole pathway to the ‘being-taken-seriously-and-being-understood’ experience as the worker asking directly about the problem and showing empathy. If the worker is not doing this the assumption is that it must be impossible for clients to have this supposedly vital experience. And yet I would argue that this is not the case. Even though we are not asking about the problem clients, one way or another, do tell us about the problem that is concerning them. 
a. The most obvious form that this takes are those clients who require us to hear about the problem before they feel able to answer the ‘best hopes’ question and even though we may not be asking them to tell us, some clients will describe the problem in considerable detail before moving on. 
b. Other clients may not require to know that we have heard their problem story in this rather undiluted manner and yet as they answer the ‘best hopes’ questions and then describe the preferred future they spontaneously interlace problem/preferred future answers. For example clients will not infrequently answer questions in a particular form ‘well recently I have been feeling really depressed, so if things were better I wouldn’t be feeling so depressed’ or ‘he never takes me seriously so I guess that he’d be taking me more seriously and we’d be arguing less and getting on better’. The client moves repeatedly from problem to preferred future in answering, demonstrating the problem to possibility shift that is at the heart of this approach. 
c. However even clients who do nether of thee things and simply step into a description of the ‘better’ future for which they are hoping in my view ‘get it’. They know that when they tell us that they would be ‘more confident’ that are also saying that they are not currently as confident as they could wish to be. Clients understand that when they say ‘we’ll be talking’, that they have also stated that they are not talking with their partner as much as they would hope. Every preferred future description has a ‘shadow side’, an implied other and that implied other are those things that the client wants to change. And thus as the worker invites the client to describe in detail the preferred future, they are being asked, indirectly, to describe in detail those things that they want to see changing in their lives. It would indeed be hard to imagine a worker being more interested, and more interested in the detail, albeit in an indirect sort of way.

So when towards the end of session I ask clients ‘has anything been left out, is there anything that I should have asked you about today, have we been talking about the right things?’, virtually everyone responds by saying that we have indeed been talking about the right things and that nothing has been left out. Clients do indeed experience us as immensely interested and they therefore feel that we are taking them hugely seriously, refusing to make assumptions about what we think that they should want, instead centralizing their thinking, their wishes, their best hopes. There are indeed more pathways towards ‘being-taken-seriously-and-feeling-understood’ than many people realise.

Evan George
London
28th October 2018