The need for empathy, or perhaps more precisely the requirement for the worker to show empathy, is one of those things that is assumed, taken for granted, in counselling circles. And so it is perhaps hardly surprising that a not infrequently asked question on Solution Focused trainings is something along the lines of ‘but where does empathy fit in to Solution Focused practice?’. Now what I am about to say is likely to make me sound horribly callous, someone who is not fit to be a therapist, indeed not fit to get anywhere near a client, but what interests me is this question ‘what is the point of empathy?’. If we accept for a moment that ‘empathy’ is not a good thing per se, is not something that one should do whatever the consequence, whatever difference it made, then surely the question ‘what is the point of empathy?’ is a legitimate one and not one that should immediately invest me, wholly and irrevocably, with pariah status. It must be assumed, surely, that we show empathy for a reason, to achieve something, a conclusion that becomes quite clear if we imagine a simple hypothetical scenario. Imagine for a moment that the ‘showing of empathy’ were to consistently and predictably have the effect of making change less likely, of being associated with a greater chance of no change. In such a circumstance would we nonetheless feel obliged to ‘show empathy’ and the answer of course is ‘no’. If this unlikely scenario were indeed to be the case then showing empathy would in fact be unethical, since in doing so we would be doing something that reduces the likelihood of change occurring. Thus clearly the showing of empathy is not a ‘good per se’, not something that we are obliged to do irrespective of the difference that it makes, we do it because we assume that showing empathy makes a difference. So let’s go back to the question ‘what is the point of empathy?’, and if we ask this to practitioners, after some momentary head-scratching, people typically say that that ‘the point of empathy is that showing empathy is useful for the building of a therapeutic alliance’. Now we are getting somewhere. We show empathy because it is useful and it is useful in a very specific way, in creating a context within which people are going to be able to work effectively with us. ‘Showing empathy’ is a route towards a specific destination. But what if there were other effective ways of creating a context within which clients are able to work with us, would that mean that the showing of empathy was less significant?
Now clearly something that most people know about Solution Focused Practice is that we do not invite our clients into problem talk, indeed we do the opposite, we ask clients questions which invite them into solution talk and thus the amount of time spent focusing directly on distressing experiences is probably less than is the case in many other approaches. Given that this is the case, that the scope for empathy is therefore limited, it remains undeniably true that the clients of Solution Focused practitioners seem as engaged in conversation, as willing to respond, as thoughtful and reflective and engaged as the clients of practitioners who use other approaches. This suggests that there must be ways other than the showing of empathy for a productive environment in therapy to develop and I believe this to be the case. So what do we do?
1. Clients in Solution Focused practice are likely to experience the worker as interested in what they want from the therapy and in the detail of how the client will know that the preferred future is happening. This refusal to ‘know better’ or even to ‘know different’ and the constant centering of the client in the work seems likely to help to create a productive working environment.
2. The assumption of competence on the part of the client, the impact of the belief that the client’s best way forward is the best way, seems likely to help to create a productive working environment.
3. The careful listening to the client, the therapist’s use of the client’s own words in the construction of questions, the level of attention that this conveys, seems likely to help to create a productive working environment.
4. The way that each question builds on the client’s last answer means that the conversation is likely to be experienced as a co-construction, the client is being taken account of at all times and this seems likely to help to create a productive working environment.
5. Checking out the ‘partnership’ ‘are we talking about the right things?’, ‘are you OK with these questions?’, ‘can I ask you some more?’, ‘has anything been missed out?’, seems likely to help to create a productive working environment.
So there do indeed seem to me to be many ways, (indeed there are many more) that the emergence of a productive working relationship is supported in Solution Focused Practice. But what happens in Solution Focus when the client does start talking about a problem and is clearly pained by it. Well the first job it seems to me is to be ‘human’ to say something that acknowledges that we have heard what the client has said and that we have appreciated that this is or has been distressing for the client. Often in my work this takes the form of something on the lines of:
‘Goodness it sounds like things have been really tough for you’
‘It sounds like you have been living through a really difficult time over the last few months’
and if the client accepts this statement we attach a question. If we acknowledge and just stop, leaving an unfocused opening in the conversation, then the client will almost inevitably, and understandably, take this as an invitation to talk more about what has been distressing. However since this is not our intention in Solution Focused Practice, for the client to spend any more time than they require focusing directly on difficulties, we attach a question and the question is an invitation to change direction.
‘It sounds as if things have been really tough of late’
‘so how have you managed to keep yourself going?’
‘so how will you know that our talking together has ended up being useful to you?’
‘so how will you know that things are beginning to turn a corner and to look up?’.
In Solution Focus we are unlikely to think about empathy as a key concept, however of course it is important that we are good, kind, human beings whom the client experiences as wanting the very best for them! And in this context may we finally say that our thoughts are with the people of the Ukraine at this terrible time and indeed with those Russians, many in the Solution Focused community, who are appalled at the actions of Vladimir Putin and his circle and who are clear that this invasion, Putin’s war, is not being carried out in their names. May a just peace prevail soon which will enable the people of the Ukraine to re-build their shattered but independent free and sovereign lives.
27th February 2022