The Centre for Solution Focused Practice

Do we really have to pin our clients down?

I have just been asked to deliver a day of Solution Focused training for a team of coaches working within a large and important organisation. Thinking about the day has left me pondering. Coaches often describe coaching as radically different from therapy but is this actually true? What is the nature of the difference between coaching and therapy? How different are they really when we start to explore their ways of thinking about people? And one of the things that got me thinking was the following quotation from the book by Greene and Grant (2003), a book somewhat misleadingly entitled Solution-focused Coaching. (The book seems to me to have little to do with the Solution Focused approach as far as I can tell.) Anyway what they write is this:
‘Each coaching session must finish with a written action plan. . . . Doing this really increases the coachee’s commitment and make goal attainment more likely. If it’s not written down, it’s not coaching. It’s a want-to-be conversation about how things might get better some day when I get round to it.’ (p 103)

Look at the implications of this sentence. Greene and Grant seem to me to be implying that in essence people do not want to change. They are suggesting that people will come to coaching but won’t take any action on the basis of the session unless we somehow get them to commit themselves through getting them to write down a written action plan. People they seem to think do not mean, in any sensible way at least, what they say when they say that they want to change; in fact, they seem to be saying coachees would prefer to just carry on as they are. This view of human beings fits well with the ideas that characterise so much therapy discourse, the idea that people are not motivated, that they do not really want to change, that they may even be resistant. As coaches therefore we have to act on these people to get them to make these changes. The change process is implicitly constructed as a struggle between the professional and the client, the professional being for change and the client not really wanting to take any action. Steve de Shazer (1983) characterised this view of therapy (and it seems coaching) in the following terms:
‘From the earliest days, 20th-century psychotherapy has most often been described as a contest. . . . The contest was this: The therapist (for change) had joined battle against the client's resistance (a force against change). Once the therapist "won" this contest, the client was no longer seen as resistant, and there was a "cure"; the problem was solved.’ (p 13)

Of course this view of the people is completely at odds with the way that the Solution Focused practitioner chooses to view the coachee.
1. The Solution Focused practitioner chooses to assume that whatever the coachee is doing is the best that they can do right now and that it is our job to collaborate with their ‘best’, getting alongside them in that ‘best’, rather than, implicitly, criticising them and implying that they are too lazy to really engage in changing.
2. The Solution Focused practitioner believes that far from not wanting to change that the coachee is already changing, that change is constant, and that elements of what the coachee wants are already present when we meet the coachee for the first time. It might only be a question of doing more – as simple (and easy) as that.
3. The Solution Focused practitioner takes people seriously and assumes that when they say that they want to change, that they really do want to change and that they are serious in their intent.
In summary the Solution Focused practitioner chooses to trust the coachee; radical trust is the core position from which we work and which is the most striking feature of the Solution Focused approach.

Coaches are very often more like therapists than their rhetoric likes to acknowledge (Iveson et al, 2012 pp 5 - 6). Coaching does not appear to be a particularly significant step-change from the world of therapy. Whether coaches focus on the future or the past, whether they work with capacity or limitation, is not really the issue. The way that the client is conceptualised is often surprisingly similar. The fundamental shift is when we move from a problem focused to a solution focused way of conceptualising, when we truly trust our clients and suddenly action planning is reconceptualised as a hindrance, as something that gets in the way of change. Since Solution Focused practitioners trust the client to change, to attempt to pin down the client in some sort of written agreement unnecessarily over-rigidifies the change process, since after all when the client leaves the session what might well have seemed a great idea when she was sitting with the coach might well just not seem so brilliant or apposite when she finds herself back at work. Leaving the client with the suggestion that she might like to watch out for anything that tells her that she is moving in the direction of her best hopes allows her to be flexible, to respond to her circumstances, to engage in ‘in-the-moment-planning’, harnessing her commitment and motivation in the way that is just right for the situation that the coachee finds herself in rather than somehow attempting to oblige the coachee to do what seemed to be a good idea a week ago.

de Shazer, Steve (1983) Patterns of Brief Family Therapy. New York: Guildford Press
Greene, J., Grant, A. (2003) Solution-focused Coaching Harlow: Pearson.
Iveson, Chris, George, Evan and Ratner, Harvey (2012) Brief Coaching: A Solution Focused Approach. London: Routledge.

Evan George
London
November 2018