The Centre for Solution Focused Practice

Blaming our clients!

It was my first Solution Focused conference workshop, Autumn 1995, the EBTA Conference in Bremen. I had undertaken to deliver a workshop; but it had not occurred to me, presumptuous anglophone that I clearly am, that my workshop would be translated into German and that therefore I would need to cut the content by approximately half. Well anyway following a very rapid on the hoof re-write I got it done and as far as I can remember no-one walked out or booed or hissed, no rotten eggs, no tomatoes. So by my very low standards – survival was all that was required – a clear and evident triumph.

My title was ‘Fit – the hidden heart of Solution Focused Brief Therapy’. What had occurred to me in my first years of using the approach was that SF practice is trickier than it looks. We cannot rely on a manualized predictability, we are constantly making choices in the questions that we ask and the way that we ask them. At the time the word that I was using was ‘fit’; there needed to be a ‘fit’ between the client’s position and the question asked because in the absence of ‘fit’ the question would make no sense. Nowadays I might frame this thought differently. I might prefer to say that every question that we ask has to both take account of the previous answer and indeed build on that answer.

If, for example, someone were to say to us ‘I have had a terrible week’ and we were to respond with the question ‘so what’s been great for you?’ the question is so far from the client’s statement as to make no sense – there is no ‘fit’. The worker is not taking account of the client’s statement. There is no connection and the client realizing that they are not being heard will either assume that we failed to hear and therefore repeat the statement a little louder or assume that we do not want to hear them, a thought that is likely to undermine the working partnership – and clearly neither of these are useful outcomes. So we need to shape a question that makes sense and takes account, where there is in other words a good enough ‘fit’. We might perhaps ask ‘given that the week has been terrible what have you noticed yourself doing that you have been pleased with’ or ‘given that it has been a terrible week how have you managed to keep yourself going?’, both questions that ‘fit’ the client’s statement and shift the client’s attention to those things that the client might want to see growing.

I remember at the end of the workshop showing a segment of a recording of the end of a session from my work with a woman who had lived through extraordinarily tough times and who tended to blame herself for her misfortunes and for all the resultant difficulties in her life. Indeed whenever I asked a question that might risk leading her to notice her capacities and strengths she would find these questions too hard to bear and whenever I said anything that could highlight her abilities she would reject it. I was struggling and so at the end of the fifth session I found myself, in desperation and with my team’s encouragement, saying to her at the end of the session ‘Janet I would like to add my voice to all the voices of blame in your life’. I paused. She looked slightly puzzled. This was not what she was expecting from a Solution Focused practitioner. So on I went ‘I would like to blame you for having found the strength at the age of 5 to . . . . , I would like to blame you for having persevered in . . . when many would have given up, I would like to blame you for having found a way to . . . , I would like to blame you for refusing to give in when many others might have, I would like to blame you . . . , I would like to blame you . . . , and finally I would like to blame you for . . . ‘. At the end of the session Janet looked somewhat shocked and I certainly felt just as shocked. I had never ever said anything like this to a client before. ‘Fitting’ with my client had taken me way outside my comfort zone.

So this was the story I recalled, after many years of having completely forgotten it, when I read Chris Iveson being quoted on Twitter as saying at the recent SF conference in Essex ‘the language of blame is great in our work, because we blame our clients for their successes’. I still feel a little queasy remembering that session!

So this is one of the things that we do in this work – finding successes to blame our clients for, thereby subverting the language of blame whilst cooperating with them.

Evan George
London