The Centre for Solution Focused Practice

How scale questions prevent SF from ‘meandering’ (too much)

Friends of mine, clearly concerned about how much I’m working, have given me a copy of a book just released in paperback called Not Working: Why We Have To Stop by Josh Cohen (London: Granta Books 2018). Cohen is a psychoanalyst, so he’s not the usual kind of author I expect to spend time with, but he’s proving a stimulating read.
In his introduction he refers to what he calls ‘short-term cognitive psychotherapies’ and says that they take the position that ‘the inertial forces that obstruct our progress through life – despair, inadequacy, lassitude, apathy – are mere errors to be corrected and removed’ – by ‘positive thinking’, he says. By way of contrast ‘the progress of psychoanalysis is long and meandering and its outcome uncertain because it sees those same forces as fundamental to who and what we are, fixed atoms in the structure of our selves’.

I assume Cohen would regard Solution Focus as one of the ‘short-term cognitive psychotherapies’. I of course disagree that in SF we take the position that what holds people back from progress are ‘errors’ in thinking that can be dispelled by ‘positive thinking’. And we certainly don’t, as he says, regard anything as a ‘fixed atom’ in ourselves, thwarting us. So what do we think? The problem is that we aren’t explicit about ‘what we think’ because we don’t have a theory of why people’s problems come about. How do we, in that case, explain how solutions come about? We’re pretty vague about that too.
Cohen has an interesting comment about the founder of psychoanalysis. ‘One of Freud’s most important and paradoxical discoveries is that the circuitous, aimless detour is the most reliable way of reaching the truth’. Now, obviously, the last thing that can be said about SF practice is that it is ‘aimless’. The focus on the preferred future, the outcome, means that SF is directional in a way that is probably anathema to psychodynamic therapists. But what about ‘circuitous’? Here I’m in some agreement.

In BRIEF’s take on SF, we don’t start with the problem that needs solving. We start with what people want from our work with them (their ‘best hopes’) and then take them on a journey into what achieving those hopes ‘tomorrow’ would look like. I think this is circuitous in the sense that we amble off with our clients into this preferred future, and then come gradually back towards where they are now. And that’s where the scale comes in. ‘10’ stands for the achievement of the preferred future (and ‘0’ the opposite) so where are they now?
It’s perhaps inevitable that for many if not most practitioners learning how to do SF, the scale is seen as the way to help the client work out what they have to do next to move on. It’s not surprising they do this; even Steve de Shazer was committed to it – ‘what are you going to do?’ he’d repeatedly demand until the client came up with something; it didn’t matter much what it was, as long as it was something behavioural.

At BRIEF we have a different approach. We explore the client’s preferred future, and then we explore what they are already doing to get there. We are not particularly interested in the problem that brought them, or in what they have to do next. So, in a way, we are somewhat meandering, as in the earlier quote from Cohen about analysis. It is as if we are exploring aspects of the client’s life that they, prior to the session, probably couldn’t imagine they’d end up talking about in order to solve their problems, and which even during the session they might be wondering ‘how is this going to help me?’ Perhaps those questions, in the forefront of the client’s mind at the start, start to dissipate as the interview goes on. And the scale helps to anchor things, to ‘make sense’. The questions might reassert themselves towards the end, and it may be necessary to invite the sceptical client to go away and look out for signs of the preferred future happening (or signs of them moving up the scale). Milton Erickson said that confusion was a state of mind in which someone could learn new things and while I don’t want my clients to leave confused, I do hope they’ll be puzzled and intrigued and newly alert in their lives.

Cohen, Josh. (2018) Not Working: Why We Have To Stop. London: Granta Books.

Harvey Ratner
09 February 2020


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