The Centre for Solution Focused Practice

How do you know when . . . .?

Chris, Harvey and I started teaching the Solution Focused approach in 1989 – quite a while ago really – so you would have thought that by now we would know how to answer all the questions that people ask about the model with some degree of confidence. And the truth is that we do – mainly. However there is one question that I always struggle with, always wishing that I had a better, clearer, more useful answer. The question that people ask that always leaves me feeling a bit feeble when responding is ‘so how do you know when it is time to move on to another focus?’. Yes exactly - how do we know that enough is enough, another way that people ask the same thing. And there is another version of pretty much the same question ‘so how much detail is required in the description of the preferred future?’ and the honest answer is that I do not really know. So, given that I don’t really know the answer to these questions, how do I go about my job?

Let’s start by saying that there are some things that I do know and where my knowing ends something else, habit perhaps, takes over. So first of all we do need an answer to the ‘best hopes/desired outcome’ question. Solution Focused is well known to be a non-normative approach and so if the client has not answered our first question, ‘so what are your best hopes from our talking together?’, (or some version of this question), there is literally nowhere to go in our talking, or nowhere Solution Focused to go perhaps I should say. As Harry Korman has said ‘If we don’t (know) what the client wants . . . we can’t have any questions to ask’. So we need a ‘workable best hope’ and without that we cannot move on in a Solution Focused conversation. Of course how we define what for each of us represents a good enough ‘workable best hope’ is in itself tricky and can be thought about at another time but broadly and generally we are looking in the client’s answer for some quality-of-living type words, words like ‘happy, confident, motivated, energized, getting on with life, doing myself justice’ and so on. And when we have one or more of these sorts of words, we scoop them up and insert them into a preferred future question ‘so if you woke up tomorrow, happier, more motivated, energized with a real sense that you are getting on with life in a way that does you justice, how will you know?’. What happens now is that the client describes their life, their real life, but their life as transformed by the presence of the ‘best hopes’. Now this description could, given sufficient inventiveness in asking questions on the part of the worker and given sufficient patience on the part of the client, go on forever, literally forever. So how do we decide that enough is enough, that the Solution Focused conversation has generated sufficient detail and that it is time to shift the focus?

A first response to this key question relies on our debt to Insoo Kim Berg who might have been the first person to assure us that ‘in order to go fast you have to go slow’. What many of us drew from Insoo’s dictum was the idea that the more detail in the picture of the preferred future the better. We might perhaps describe this ‘detail-generating’ process as opening possibilities, inspired by Bill O’Hanlon, or we might describe it as a process of ‘stretching the client’s world’ following Mark McKergow or, rather more mundanely, as expanding the range of indicators, criteria whereby the client will be able to say ‘wow I am changing’ when they are noticed, as I might argue. But what if the client truly could go on and on and on describing, as indeed they might be able to do, would we ever stop, would we ever refocus. I have two thoughts in relation to this. Most people, however skilled we might be in the Solution Focused conversational process, cannot go on and on or to attempt to do so would become painful, oppressive and persecutory. So sometimes there can come a time in a conversation when we note that the descriptions are becoming repetitive and stuck and little ‘new’ is emerging in the talking and indeed the client might become irritated ‘I’ve said that before’ or ‘I’m just saying the same things’, and that can be a good indicator that the time has come to move on, although that will not always be the case. However if the client is comfortable continuing when do we stop and I think that the answer here is probably as banal as ‘default structure’. Most of us who have been working for a while develop a rhythm that feels comfortable, that feels right. These rhythms, default structures will differ from worker to worker. I look at many of my sessions and they fall into a pattern, perhaps 5 minutes talking around the ‘best hopes’, followed by thirty to thirty-five minutes detailing of the client’s life as transformed, followed by 15 minutes or so working with a ‘best hopes progress’ scale and then a final five to ten minutes in an ending sequence. Of course others do differ. Since for some years our friends Elliott Connie and Adam Froerer have questioned the place of scales in Solution Focused Practice and since they saw little place for any sort of ending sequence, at least forty-five minutes of a first session was dedicated to describing the preferred future. Steve de Shazer on the other hand invited his clients into a rather ‘broad brush’ description of the preferred future, and typically spent much less long with clients eliciting miracle descriptions. Interestingly when he was asked this same question ‘how much description is enough’ I remember him answering ‘when I can see the miracle’, although I always did wonder what that meant. So it seems that either we can’t find our way to more description or we resort to ‘default’, to habit, but what intrigues me is the question does it truly matter.

In Solution Focused Practice we are engaging the client in, I would argue, change talk and the change can either be future change or past change. We focus on a description of ‘better’, ‘better’ that has not yet happened and ‘better’ that has happened. So maybe the balance between future ‘better’ and past ‘better’ does not matter as much as we think. Maybe the real question is about our capacity to focus our Solution Focused conversations towards change, towards difference, towards ‘better’ and the ‘when is enough truly enough’ is trivial. Of course while we lack research findings in relation to this we will continue to have no way of knowing!

Evan George


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