So much of learning the Solution Focused process seems to rely on a capacity to ‘let go’. Of course we have to be familiar with a set of techniques, our precious best hopes question, the tomorrow question, questions about instances and exceptions perhaps, scale questions and what’s better, but what I think that we have to do is to construct a ‘home’ for our Solution Focused practice, a way of relating to our clients within which those techniques can happily live and flourish. de Shazer in his article with Gale Miller refers to the Solution Focused process in somewhat similar terms ‘Building homes for solutions is what the solution-focused language game is designed to do.’ (Miller & de Shazer, 1998), and successful, creative Solution Focused practice requires a home of it own, a context within which it can flourish and it is perhaps for this reason that Solution Focused Brief Therapy is not the right approach for every practitioner. If indeed the process of ‘letting go’ is crucial to the ‘building’ then what is it that we are letting go and crucially we are I think letting go of control, letting go of knowing, letting go of understanding, letting go of any certainty, letting go of responsibility.
1. Control. Letting go of control is fundamental. As soon as we give up any requirement to assess our clients, to take a history from our clients and choose instead simply to base our work on the client’s response to the ‘best hopes questions’ (George et al, 1999) we are handing control of the process to the client. I sometimes refer to the client as my ‘employer’, my ‘boss’, since it is the client who cuts out my work for me and indeed determines whether I have done a good enough job for her/him/them. It is my client who determines who should come to the sessions, whether a further session is required after the first and if it is required, when that session should be. It is my client who shapes everything that I do subsequent to my very first question, since every question that I ask has to take account of the last answer that my client gave.
2. Knowing. Giving up the need to know is fundamental. We can perhaps assume that the answer to the ‘best hopes’ question somehow relates to the issue that brings the client to us and which is bothersome to that client and yet in Solution Focused practice as long as we have an answer to the ‘best hopes’ question we do not need to know what is bothering our client. Of course our client may choose to tell us, and very often that is indeed the case, and yet sometimes the client will not and we need to live comfortable with the not knowing, comfortable with talking about something that has not been directly defined. de Shazer in his book Clues (1988) wrote ‘Solutions need not be directly related to the problems they are meant to solve’ (p 63). Exactly and as long as the client has an appreciation of the connection we really do not need to know.
3. Understanding. In many, if not most approaches, ‘understanding’ lies at the heart of the process. The worker seeks to understand what is going on, perhaps even, a little more ambitiously and certainly more arrogantly and definitely more self-deludingly, ‘what is really going on’. The worker might seek to understand the client, to figure the client out, might seek to understand the etiology of the difficulty or maybe to understand what is happening within the system that is maintaining the problem behaviour. Patterns, sequences, developmental experiences, relationships, history and more will all be grist to the mill, will all be ground until fine ‘understanding’ is achieved and with understanding comes knowing and with understanding and knowing comes a sense of control. In Solution Focused practice we seek to understand nothing, we merely listen to the client’s answer as a basis for developing our next Solution Focused question. All that we require perhaps is an appreciation of the Solution Focused approach, a fluency in Solution Focused languaging and a capacity to fit that specific form of languaging to the client’s last response.
4. Certainty. There is no ‘certainty’ in the Solution Focused approach. As Steve de Shazer often said in presentations ‘we cannot know that we have asked a good question until we hear the client’s answer’ and indeed we cannot evaluate a session until the client returns. Only if the client responds to ‘what’s been better’ with an account of better can we judge that perhaps the previous session might have been of use but even then, we quickly remind ourselves, the client might have changed anyway regardless of our efforts. No there is no certainty in the Solution Focused world.
5. Responsibility. As we let go of control and knowing and understanding and certainty we also let go of responsibility. The Solution Focused practitioner is not responsible for changing the client. Only the client can change the client. All that we can do is to co-construct a very particular sort of conversation in the context of which the client reports, ultimately and hopefully, that they no longer need to return. We cannot even know how much, in any one situation, we might have contributed to the change occurring. Perhaps the change would have happened without us. Even worse, perhaps the change might have happened quicker without us. In this world wherein we let go of certainty, of knowing and of control, we also let go of responsibility for anything more than our side of the Solution Focused conversation.
So if ‘letting go’ is foundational in constructing a ‘home’ for Solution Focused Practice, letting go of control, letting go of knowing, letting go of understanding, of certainty and responsibility what takes their place at the heart of the home, what is the ‘great instead’ (Ratner et al, 2012), and it seems to me that what we celebrate, what we treasure is simply ‘knowing our way around’. Wittgenstein wrote in Philosophical Investigations ‘A philosophical problem has the form: "I don't know my way around" (#123). Encouraged by Steve de Shazer’s valuing of Wittgenstein’s thinking, so evident in de Shazer’s later writings, many in our community have drawn on this idea and proposed that for a client, their experience of having a problem could be expressed in the same terms ‘I don’t know my way around’ and that we work with people until they have the sense ‘I do know my way around’. In an analogous manner it seems to me that what is required of us as competent practitioners is to be able to say ‘I know my way about the Solution Focused conversation’ and that this ambition, to know my way about, can take a place of honour in our Solution Focused ‘home’.
de Shazer, Steve (1988) Clues: Investigating Solutions in Brief Therapy. New York: Norton.
George, E., Iveson, C. and Ratner, H. (1990; Revised and expanded Edition 1999) Problem to Solution: Brief Therapy with Individuals and Families. London: BT Press
Miller, G., de Shazer, S. (1998) Emotions in Solution-Focused Therapy: A Re-examination Family Process Vol 39 No 1
Ratner, H., George, E., Iveson, C. (2012) Solution Focused Brief Therapy: 100 Key Ideas and Techniques. London: Routledge
Wittgenstein, L. (1953) Philosophical Investigations. Oxford: Blackwell
04 July 2021