The Centre for Solution Focused Practice

Are our questions enough?

Yesterday the BRIEF team, Chris Iveson, Harvey Ratner and Evan George, enjoyed a lunch in central London with Haesun Moon and Michael Hoyt. What a treat and a pleasure. You might perhaps already have seen the photo.

Michael, ever the author and editor and interviewer, even over a friendly lunch, asked the BRIEF team members and Haesun what had got them interested in the Solution Focused approach, even though ‘obsessed with’ might be a truer description in relation to Chris, Harvey and Evan. Now the restaurant was busy and noisy and I was at one end of the table but I think that the answers given were roughly as follows. Harvey, sitting opposite me, talked about the clarity that the approach offers, you know what to focus on, you know what questions to ask, and you have a structure. Chris’ response was pretty similar, although he was up the other end and harder to hear, however he seemed to be saying that it was clear what you do and he found that he was able to do it. Haesun’s first answer, and I am sure that she would have elaborated were there to have been time, was that the approach just made sense to her. My response, and of course it was easier for me to hear what I was saying despite the noise, was to do with the stance that Solution Focus takes towards the people with whom we work. I immediately liked the fact that the Solution Focused practitioner believes in the client’s capacity to change and centres people’s own best ways of doing things rather than seeking to ‘impose’ our views in relation to what they should be doing. Indeed without perhaps realising it at the time, back in 1987, I loved the fact that there is no ‘should’ in the approach.

Reflecting on this conversation on my way home whilst sitting on the upstairs of a London bus, (the 68 actually for those of you who know London well), I was left pondering. If all we had were the questions, if the questions we ask were all that we knew of Solution Focus, what would a session look like? I wonder because I do think that it is the assumptions about clients and about the therapy process that we choose to carry into the conversations that we have with people, which inform those conversations and which shape the way that we talk. As it happens I was left pondering which of two assumptions that are significant to me is the more important, whether it was ‘the client has everything that is required to achieve their best hopes’ or ‘all clients are giving of their best at all times’. I am not sure where the idea that clients are ‘giving of their best’ came from. It doesn’t sound like my sort of language so perhaps Steve de Shazer wrote this although I am not sure where. The closest that I have come to it is a sentence from Patterns in Brief Therapy, Steve’s pre-Solution Focused book that almost no-one seems to read these days, where he writes ‘Each family (individual or couple) shows a unique way of attempting to cooperate, and the therapist's job becomes, first, to describe that particular manner to himself that the family shows and, then, to cooperate with the family's way and, thus, to promote change’ (de Shazer, 1982, pp 9 – 10). Not quite the same I know, but it does frame what people are doing as their best attempt to co-operate and actually on re-reading I think that I prefer the idea that the client is ‘giving of their best’. So where does holding this assumption in my mind, choosing to take it into the conversation, lead?

People who answer questions with ‘I don’t know’ – good answer – I need to think harder about a question that works better, that is more fitting.

People who remain silent – it doesn’t happen very often – people have an absolute right to remain silent – for many people it may seem the best and safest option – did I forget to say that they do not need to answer any questions that they would prefer not to answer – is there anything that they may wish to ask me in order to feel at their ease – maybe I could just carry on asking questions – they do not have to answer out loud.

People who arrive late – life is tough sometimes – let’s make really good use of the time that we have rather than worrying about the time that we have lost.

People who do not report change in follow-up sessions – what I have been doing cannot have been useful so what can I do differently?

So it seems to me that the ideas that we have, the assumptions that we choose, provide a frame for the questions that we ask, shaping the interaction; they are integral to the approach.

So what can we conclude? Perhaps that a set of assumptions is useless without any content, without questions, without focus, and perhaps a set of questions without the stance that is characteristic of our approach, might be experienced very differently by the people with whom we work.

So thanks to Michael and Haesun for joining us, thanks for Michael for his curiosity, thanks to Chris and Harvey and Haesun for their answers and as ever thanks to Steve and Insoo and all the rest of the Milwaukee team for the ground-breaking work that made our conversation today possible.

Steve de Shazer (1982) Patterns of Brief Family Therapy. New York: Guilford.

Evan George


05 November 2023


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