‘Language is what bewitches but language is what we must stay within in order to cure the bewitchment.’
‘Philosophy is a battle against the bewitchment of our intelligence by means of our language.’
Solution Focused practitioners know all about the centrality of language in the work that we do. We take such great care in our talking for after all, as Steve de Shazer reminded us with the title of his fifth book, ‘words were originally magic’ (Freud, 1915 - 17). So what is going on with all the talk in our field about ‘hope’ and what are the risks if we are not meticulous in our thinking and describing.
The increased talk of ‘hope’ is not surprising since after all the majority of Solution Focused practitioners across the world now start most of their first sessions asking their clients some version of the question ‘so what are your best hopes from our talking together?’ (George, 1999). However of late we have increasingly heard our approach being referred to as ‘hopeful’, we have heard descriptions of our model which suggest that ‘hope’ is at the heart of what we do, perhaps even that the Solution Focused approach builds ‘hope’ or ‘hopefulness’. So in what possible way could this clearly benevolent description of what we are up to pose us any risks or present us with any difficulties?
The risk it seems to me lies in the insidious all-pervasiveness of the cause-and-effect thinking that surrounds us, within which we live and which makes our lives thoughtlessly manageable. ‘When I flick the switch the light comes on’ leads us after a number of repetitions of this experience to ‘if I want the light to come on I have to flick the switch’. However in our world, the world of Solution Focused practice, this transition can be problematic.
So we might start with a statement along the lines of ‘clients experiencing Solution Focused Brief Therapy seem to become more hopeful’. If we then follow this possibly correct observation with the statement, based on our experience, ‘clients undergoing Solution Focused Brief Therapy report making changes’ then the risk is that we might slip to ‘SFBT brings about change because it builds hope in people’s lives’. It is clear, as we set out the propositions this way, that what we have done is to add the word ‘because’ which now links the two statements and we have given SFBT the credit for the changes. From there we might begin to think ‘the task of the Solution Focused practitioner is to build hope’ and from that point we can slip, almost not noticing, to the notion, possibly unarticulated, ‘clients tend to lack hope and it is our job to elicit hope in their lives so that they can change’. We have in other words moved seamlessly from two simple observations to a causal explanation for problems and indeed a deficit view of clients. Naturally we could substitute for the word ‘hope’ the concept of ‘self-esteem’ or ‘positivity’ or ‘confidence’ and the risks and dangers are the same.
Holding on to the two observations without linking them is hard but only, it seems to me, by so doing can we resist slipping to the deficit-based framing ‘people need to be more hopeful’ and ‘it is my job to bring forth their hopefulness’.
What we need to focus on in SFBT is the conversational process which lies at the heart of the practice. If and when people appear to become hopeful that is their business but it is not the practitioner’s intention. There is a delicacy about our way of working that is challenging, that is hard to grasp and even at the end of this piece I am not quite sure that I have ‘got’ it.
Freud, S. (1915 - 17) cited in de Shazer, Steve. (1994) Words were originally magic. Norton: New York.
George E., Iveson, C., Ratner, H. (1999). Problem to Solution. 2nd edition. BT Press: London.
Staten, Henry. (1984). Wittgenstein and Derrida. University of Nebraska Press: Lincoln (NE).
Wittgenstein, Ludwig. (1953). Philosophical Investigations §109. Blackwell: Oxford.
This preliminary note was even more preliminary prior to a discussion about it with Denise Yusuf.
27 September 2020