There are several hundred plausible theories with which to explain human behaviour. Each makes some sort of sense and each is different. At one end of the spectrum is the Rolls Royce of psychoanalytic theory with its egos and superegos, its transferences and counter-transferences, its Oedipus and its Electra; and at the other end the Ford Focus of cognitive behavioural theories, basically three crossed wires. The number of such theories grows by the week because they are all figments of imagination: we haven’t got three wires, crossed or uncrossed running through our bodies, no-one has seen an ego and Oedipus was a character from a story. They are interesting and sometimes useful ways of looking at the world, but they are still just metaphors. We have not explained ourselves.
The rest of the world is easier. When my bicycle suddenly made a strange noise and became more difficult to ride one day coming hope from work I could quickly explain why. One look at the rear wheel and I knew I had a puncture and knew what I needed to do in order to ride it again. However, when my wife, on opening the front door, said “Why do you always leave your keys behind?” I had no answer, no explanation – or several hundred possible explanations if I went to the university library.
I used to be a volunteer coach at my local high school working mainly with young people with challenging behaviour. Typically, a teacher would bring along a 14 or 15 year old boy or girl and I would hear the repeated question “Why?” preceding them: Why do you keep messing about in class? Why are you always fighting? Why don’t you . . . ?
Chester was a boy who missed a lot of school and was generally uncooperative when he did attend. “Why do you keep missing school? You know things are going to end badly for you if you keep this up? Why don’t you listen?” The typical questions of a frustrated teacher desperate to engage a bright young man and save him from failure. If only we can find an explanation we will be able to fix it. We might just as well say, if only he was a punctured tire.
The Solution Focused Approach is so simple and so obvious – once you realise what it is.
“Hello Chester, have a seat, I’m really interested in how you got yourself to school today. How did you do it?” Not surprisingly Chester was a bit bemused by this question but muttered “On the bus”. Over the next ten minutes with each question seeking more detail there unfolded a story of Olympian achievement. He had three siblings and his mother was on medication that made mornings almost impossible to manage. Chester did the managing, sometimes not very well, sometimes with fighting and upset but always getting the younger children to school and seeing that his mother had her first cup of tea. It is the smallest detail in these descriptions that highlight the scale of the achievement. His brother was particularly provocative but instead of hitting him Chester went to his room for five minutes. On the bus he realised he’d left his homework behind and instead of avoiding trouble by missing another day he had a “mature conversation” with himself.
As a coach I could only marvel at what he had achieved – no advice, no tasks, no action plans, just appreciation. Not only did Chester start coming to school regularly, on the occasional days that he was absent his mother rang the school to explain.
If “Why?” doesn’t provide a useful answer look for an exception to the unwanted behaviour and ask “How?”
02 August 2020