The Centre for Solution Focused Practice

A stepping stone

I was conducting a supervision session today with someone who is very experienced in Solution Focused work but would not describe herself as an SF practitioner. We had discussed a first session she had had with a new client and then we began to focus on the second session to come, and I suggested that ‘of course you will be asking the client ‘what’s better?’’ To my surprise, she said ‘no, absolutely not. I don’t ask that question ever because I think it gives the client the idea that I can’t or won’t hear anything negative. So I just ask, ‘how are you?’ or ‘what’s been happening?’

This, I reflected to myself, is a not uncommon concern people have about SF practice. There is the view that by focusing only on ‘solution talk’, we prevent the client from talking about problems if that were to be their wish. And if a client feels stymied, they will not find the method useful to them.

I once heard Steve de Shazer say ‘we may be Solution Focused, but we’re not problem phobic’. He went on to explain that if a client felt that talking about a problem would be part of solving it for them, then that’s ok, we can ‘hear’ it. If a client has never talked about an issue before, then they are doing something different. However, he added that if they’ve already told 17 other people, then it’s going to be just more of the same if they talk to us about it.

But when I tell people we’re not ‘problem phobic’, I worry that I’m not doing justice to the model, that I’m giving permission, as it were, to them to encourage their clients to talk about problems if they feel that’s appropriate – which, since it fits with their usual practice, will mean they aren’t getting to grips with the radically different nature of SF practice.

The ‘what’s better since last time?’ question is a sort of formula question that de Shazer and his team instituted. My experience, going back over many years, is that clients will go with the question and start to reflect on signs of progress. If things haven’t gone well, they will find a way to make sure that I hear that, and I can acknowledge that and enquire how they’ve coped with setbacks. But telling trainees and supervisees ‘don’t worry, just ask the question and you’ll be pleasantly surprised’ isn’t going to be enough for many people.

This has led me to reflect on something Evan wrote about a couple of weeks ago in connection with how he ends sessions. He stated that at the end he says that if the client decides to return, he will be asking them ‘what’s been better?’. This has also been a routine in my practice for some time and for example this week I told two new clients that this is what I would ask them next time and it occurs to me, after my supervision conversation, that by, as it were, warning the client in advance, they are prepared for the question, and know this is part of my approach and not a deliberate attempt to stop them talking about problems. But of course it could be argued that knowing it’s ‘part of my approach’ will still stir the thought that preventing problem talk remains the aim. Therefore, I think I could advise someone that in addition to saying ‘I’ll be asking you what’s better’ one could add ‘and of course you will be able to tell me about things even if they’re not better’. For those of us dyed-in-the-wool SFers, this wouldn’t seem appropriate, but it could be a stepping stone on the way to becoming more SF in one’s practice.

Harvey Ratner


22 January 2023


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