I was reminded this week how much I dislike it when people describe the Solution Focused approach as a ‘very positive approach’ or even worse when people say ‘its all about being positive isn’t it’. Of course I can understand people describing what we do as ‘very positive’, and in many ways it is, but the idea that Solution Focused Brief Therapy is ‘all about being positive’ I find downright unhelpful and unlikely to be associated with any version of SFBT that I would recognise. So why might this description of the approach be problematic?
The risk of thinking that our job is just to ‘be positive’ is that this framing of our task can lead us into persuasiveness, can lead us unwittingly and probably unintentionally to disregard and to disrespect the client’s position. Let us imagine for a moment a client who arrives on our screen, or perhaps even in our consulting room, and who starts by saying ‘I have had a terrible week’. The ‘my job is to be positive’ counsellor may find themselves responding ‘yes but you got yourself here today – how did you do that?’. This ‘yes but’ framing is inherently problematic simply because of the way that the word ‘but’ works. The word ‘but’ is an argument, it deletes what comes before it; the worker is presenting proof that the statement ‘I have had a terrible week’ cannot be true, since if the client had indeed had a terrible week the client would not have arrived for the session and since the client has arrived for the session this is proof positive, according to the worker’s framing, that the client’s week cannot have been truly ‘awful’. The worker has punched a hole in the client’s logic by implicitly re-defining ‘awful’ as a week in which the client would not be able to reach a session. The rhetorical trick that has been played on the client often goes unnoticed by the client and the client agrees that they have indeed arrived and that this must mean that their week has not be as awful as they thought, but noticed or not, the worker has set out to persuade the client that they were wrong. This tendency to persuasiveness is characteristic of ‘positive’ workers.
Let’s look at another example:
‘My entire life has been wasted I have achieved nothing.’
‘Do you think that that is actually true? What about the way that you have brought up three children and done so well with them, what about the work that you have done with your local food bank and the support that you gave your mother when she was so ill?’.
Here again a ‘positive’ worker is finding evidence to discredit the client’s statement. The worker is implicitly, indeed explicitly arguing with the client, suggesting that the client’s statement is not correct, is not justified by the evidence. And this is something that the Solution Focused practitioner will pretty well never do.
In the Solution Focused approach whatever the client says is right, we do not argue, we do not take issue with the client, we do not produce evidence to prove them wrong. It does not mean that the client will never be able to see something different but the client’s statement will be accepted and will form the basis for a question, and in this way the client is continually being taken account of in the conversation. And so back to the client with the ‘awful week’.
‘I have had a terrible week’.
‘I’m sorry and given that you have had such a tough time what are your best hopes from today?’
‘I’m sorry and given that it has been terrible how on earth have you been able to keep yourself going at all?’
In both of these examples the client’s opening statement is accepted and provides the foundation for a question that may, or may not of course, be a part of the conversation moving in the direction of a better future.
The positive or persuasive version of working with clients risks proposing mutually exclusive realities, either the client is right or the worker is right, either the client’s life has indeed been entirely wasted, as the client has proposed, or it hasn’t, as the worker is implying. Who is right? But in Solution Focused work the client’s statement is fully accepted and we incorporate the client’s rightness into our next question, we are truly alongside the client rather than challenging them. No - Solution Focused work is nothing to do with ‘just being positive’, it is far more interesting than that!
02 May 2021