On a BRIEF Level 3 course this week I was talking about co-operating and referenced Steve de Shazer saying: ‘If the client cannot answer the question, the therapist has either asked the wrong question or asked it in the wrong way.’ Steve de Shazer et al (2007). I love this quote. It gets to the heart of something important for me about the Solution Focused approach and it fits as one of a sequence of thoughts about the process which are fundamental. I will try to list the sequence.
1. The Solution Focused practitioner asks questions.
2. Every question is an intervention since every question invites the client’s attention and focus.
3. It is the client hearing their own answer that potentially may make a difference.
4. It is the worker’s task to craft questions which are Solution Focused (naturally), which take account of the client’s last response and which build on the client’s last answer. (These last two points are not exactly the same. Every question must take account but not every question will necessarily build on the last answer.)
5. In addition it is the job of the practitioner to frame questions which are ‘answerable’. There is no point defeating the client by asking questions with which the client cannot work.
6. However sometimes we get this wrong, our judgement is incorrect, and we ask a question which truly defeats the client and this brings us back to de Shazer’s point, we have either ‘asked the wrong question or asked it in the wrong way’. Another possibility of course is that we have asked a ‘right’ question ‘at the wrong time’ and in so doing the question has become a ‘wrong question’.
7. When we do this it is useful to apologise to the client.
Here is a lovely sequence from a session of Yasmin Ajmal’s at BRIEF with a primary aged boy:
Worker: So you come here today from ** school - and your mum said something about what she thought might be helpful but you know what would be really good for me - can you help me with this -what would you like us to do today - what will be your best hopes of what we could do so that when you go away you think I'm really glad I came?
Child: (pause – a look up at the ceiling) – I don’t know
Worker: Is that a hard question? Can I try again?
Worker: Can I have another go? OK your mummy said something about that you would like to do something about your - (Yasmin pauses)
Child: (child fills in) behaviour
Worker: your behaviour - yeah so what is it that you would like to do about your behaviour?
Child: improve it.
Worker: Ok so you want to improve your behaviour . . .
The worker goes on to explore what difference this change will make. For me the loveliest moment is when Yasmin asks ‘: Is that a hard question? Can I try again?’. Effectively labelling the question as a ‘hard question’ protects the child indicating that it is alright not to know since the question is a hard one. And then Yasmin gets it just right when she asks ‘Can I try again?’. Exactly right! It is the worker’s responsibility to frame a question that the boy can answer. The failure is the worker’s and not the client’s.
Interestingly last week I noticed another example of this when watching a recording of Elliott Connie at BRIEF working with a young woman who has been brought to the session by her social worker. The client is finding it hard to describe her life transformed by the presence of ‘calmness’ (her best hope). She says on a number of occasions ‘how can I know – it hasn’t happened’, and as Elliott gently persists she begins to be very markedly irritated which is where we pick this up.
Worker: If you woke up and you were pleased about this change - because you don't like this other way of thinking- what impact would that have on you to be feeling in a way that you are pleased with and feeling motivated?
Client: I have no idea. I'm confused.
Worker: Maybe I'm not asking the question right. So let me go back a bit. You'd wake up feeling motivated and you said that you would feel better about yourself - right?
Worker: and you normally don't eat breakfast but you would be interested in eating breakfast and preparing for the day . . .
Worker: and you would recognise this as a good change?
Again we see the worker taking responsibility ‘maybe I’m not asking this question right’ and then doing something different, slowing down, changing tone and taking the client slowly through the scenario that she has created so far. As Don Jackson argued so many years ago ‘It seems to be difficult for most persons in our culture to give credence to the idea that the individual does the best he can at any given moment. Why should it be otherwise, when we all would rather be comfortable than in distress?’ (Jackson,1952). The way that we might put it in Solution Focus is that people are doing their best at all times and so it is down to us to collaborate with the best that they can do, to frame questions that the client can answer.
de Shazer, Steve, Dolan, Yvonne, Korman, Harry, Trepper, Terry, MacCollum, Eric and Berg, Insoo Kim (2007) More Then Miracles: the state of the art of solution focused therapy. New York: Haworth.
Jackson, Donald. (1952) The Relationship of the Referring Physician to the Psychiatrist. California Medicine; San Francisco Vol. 76, Iss. 6, (Jun 1952): 391.
2nd April 2023