I wonder how many of you read the moving piece by Natasha Walter writing about her mother Ruth Oppenheim (Observer, 20th August 23).(1) The trigger for the article is Natasha’s mother’s decision to end her life, an act that was carefully planned over a period of time, and effectively put into practice when the time, in her view, was ‘right’. Despite having heard her mother discuss her intention over a period of time Ruth found it hard to believe that her mother would indeed follow through. She describes her mother as ‘timid’, as ‘nervous’, ‘moving uncertainly through the world’. She writes ‘for my mother, this anxiety around setting off on a journey had always been there, or if not always, then as long as I had known her. So how could I expect that she would set off on the longest journey, so decisively, alone? How could I expect that courage? I did not expect it. I did not expect my mother to kill herself.’
The version of Ruth, we could say, that her daughter Natasha had constructed, just did not fit with a woman who in an organised and decisive way would kill herself.
And then when reading through her mother’s papers, that woman, the decisive, determined woman who would make her decision and carry it through, determined and organised, emerges clearly. In her mother’s papers Natasha found documents relating to her mother’s 19 arrests for civil disobedience in the 1960’s as her mother stood up for her deep-founded belief in nuclear disarmament. She found photos of a young woman bringing up two daughters on her own. She found a mother far from ‘timid’ and ‘nervous’. The woman who was later to take her life was always there, merely unnoticed by her daughter and others around her.
This example reflects rather well what I find myself doing in my Solution Focused practice and indeed doing both prospectively and retrospectively, and doing both in relation to my own thinking about the person I am working with and in relation to their own thinking about themselves.
When I meet people I am interested in meeting the person who is going to be successful in the talking that we do together in such a way that after an unknown number of conversations they will be able to arrive at the point of thinking ‘I don’t need to meet with Evan anymore’. This means that I will be inviting people to think about instances and exceptions, about changes successfully negotiated in the past, about sparkling moments and about the times that they coped with difficulties better. When people are identifying these times the strategy and identity questions that I ask invite people into ownership and agency and into the sense that they are implicated in these moments, that these moments speak of them at their best, that they showcase the version of self who can achieve whatever it is that they are wanting. In this process my experience of people changes and I think that people’s experience of themselves changes as both they and I come to the sense ‘they/we can do it’. It does seem to me that when people have the idea ‘I can do it’ that they are more likely to leave a meeting and to go away and do something useful and of course the converse also holds, that if people leave with the idea ‘this is too much for me, I will never achieve it’, that they are less likely to either take action or to notice any action that they might have taken. It also seems to me that it is important for the worker to believe in the client’s capacity and that the very last thing that anyone needs is a worker who does not believe in them. As Chris Prentiss wrote ‘‘How would you like to be treated by someone who thinks you are incurable?’’. Thus in Solution Focus we co-construct in the talking the version of the client who is going to be successful. That is the person that we listen for. That is the person that we watch out for.
However it is also useful sometimes to negotiate the same process, retrospectively, when people are reporting change in order to stabilise the change. If the client is convinced that even though things are better, that this represents a blip and that things will inevitably return to the way they were before, then the risk is that their prediction will turn out to be true. In these circumstances we can ask questions which invite people to construct the ‘hidden history of the preferred future’. For example we can ask ‘so what qualities, strengths skills and capacities do you think that you drew on to make these changes?’ and we can follow up by asking ‘and when have you drawn usefully on these qualities in the past?’. In this way we invite people into a sense of coherence, those capacities have always been there, have always been a part of me, there is a solid foundation for the ‘surprising and yet not surprising’ change that they have made. We can ask ‘now that you look back what tells you that you always did have the capacity to make these changes even if it was not obvious to you at the time?’. We can ask people ‘so who in your past would be least surprised to hear that you have made these changes, who would say I knew they could do it and what would be their ‘evidence’ of your capacity, what did they see in you in the past?’. In this way we invite people into that sense of founded coherence, of course I can make and maintain this change because look at the person that I have always been (even if I never noticed).
Finding the person who is going to be successful is a conscious process and rarely happens by chance. It is a key part of the discipline that underlies Solution Focused Practice. Successful clients do not arrive in our offices ready-made, they are co-constructed in the therapeutic process, as Steve de Shazer liked to say.
(1) Natasha Walter’s piece in the Observer is a very short extract from her book ‘Before the Light fades: A memoir of grief and resistance’ recently published by Virago
Chris Prentiss. Passages. October 31, 2006. The Times Newspaper
Natasha Walter. Extract from ‘Before the Light fades: A memoir of grief and resistance’. August 20th, 2023. The Observer Newspaper.
10th September 2023