Solution Focused practitioners are genuinely well-meaning (as indeed most therapists are) and yet sometimes our enthusiasm can carry us away and we risk becoming perhaps intrusive, perhaps impositional. In the very early days of Solution Focus this tendency was perhaps even more obvious. We talked about ‘cheer-leading’ when the client reported change and we typically ended sessions, prior to delivering a task, by giving the client compliments. Over time we came to question both of these practices. Both the ‘cheer-leading’ and the compliments seemed to centre the worker’s judgement rather than the clients, indeed were based on judgements that the worker made. Nowadays we would say that it is not our job to make judgements, either ‘positive’ or ‘negative’ ones. What we try and do instead is to centre the client’s judgements and stick to asking questions. So we ask evaluative questions:
‘I got the children to school on time today.’
‘So were YOU pleased with that?’ or ‘Sounds like you were pleased with that?’
‘Yes – it is the first time for ages.’
‘So might I ask what you did that was associated with getting the children to school on time?’
In this dialogue the client’s judgement is at the heart of the conversation rather than the worker’s judgement and the client is asked questions which open an opportunity for self-complimenting. It really is none of my business to compliment the client either during the session ‘wow you must be so strong’ or indeed at the end of the session when nowadays I am more likely to ask the client, during my ending sequence, ‘So what have you heard yourself saying during the course of our talking that might end up being useful to you, that might be worth remembering?’ None of this will surprise any of you who have been keeping a close eye on developments in the approach over the past 10 years or so.
However latterly the centering of the worker’s rather than the client’s thinking has been turning up again, albeit in a rather more subtle manner. My concern has been raised by hearing workers all over the Solution Focused world suggesting that what we should do when we are sitting with clients is to ‘listen for greatness in the client’ or alternatively to ‘look for the hero in the client’. Now on the surface both of these framings seem entirely benevolent. What could be wrong with ‘looking for greatness’ or ‘searching for the hero’ but actually I think that these practices are inherently impositional. The client is incredibly unlikely when asked the ‘best hopes’ question to have replied by saying ‘I want to be great’ or ‘I want to become a hero’. If they did then listening for greatness or evidence of heroic behaviour would be entirely legitimate, but this is unlikely. They are much more likely to have said something like ‘I want to be more confident’ or ‘I want to be happy’ or ‘I want to get on better with the people around me’, and it is the answer to the ‘best hopes’ question alone that legitimises our focus.
So what right have I to go off thinking about my clients as ‘great’ or ‘heroic’? What I do think is that we have the right to look for the things that tell us the client will be successful in achieving their ’best hopes’. Looking for evidence of a prospective good outcome seems to me to be legitimated by the client’s best hopes response but to humour our own preferences, ‘great’, ‘hero’, ‘super-star’, ‘survivor’, without permission, without legitimation from the client, seems to me to be allowing a judgemental position to slip back into the work. We are assuming the right to have judgemental thoughts and it matters not a jot whether those thoughts are ‘positive’ or ‘negative’, the right that we are allowing ourselves is the same. The centering of the client in the process is I think radical; when we are making judgements, ‘great’, ‘incompetent’ (there really is no difference), we are allowing the old ways to slip back in and I truly think that we should be wary lest we lose what it is that makes Solution Focus distinct and wonderful.
08 May 2022 - 75th day of Vladimir Putin’s war on the people of Ukraine.