The Centre for Solution Focused Practice

Letting go part 2

Many of you will be familiar with Barry Duncan and Scott Miller’s book ‘The Heroic Client’ (2000). The book places the client right at the heart of the therapy process, effectively inverting many of the taken-for-granted assumptions that have for so long been unquestioned in the therapy world. The status-quo, which the book powerfully challenges is described in these terms ‘psychotherapy is a situation in which the therapist’s model takes centre stage in the treatment of human problems. But this, of course, makes complete sense, because it is the therapist’s expertise in the causes and cures of human problems that accounts for how people change in therapy. The therapist’s understanding of the intricacies of the human psyche, the complexities of emotional experience, and the secret dynamics of human relationships enable clients to change. The light of the therapist’s wisdom is a beacon that shines the way to peace, happiness, and self-actualization’ (p 55). Indeed it seems all too often to be the ‘light of the therapist’s wisdom’ which dominates our professional discussions; the therapist is the hero figure, the star, whilst the client is relegated to ‘supporting actor’ status, there largely to highlight the brilliance of the therapist. Given this view it is hardly surprising that ‘pretreatment change’ (Weiner-Davis, 1987) has been suspected in therapeutic circles. How can real change happen until the therapist and the client meet since it is clearly and obviously the therapist who is the key figure in the change process? As McLeod and Machin (1998) wrote ‘Our view is that counselling theory and practice has been too dominated by a focus on what the counsellor does during a counselling session, and has not paid sufficient attention to what goes on before, between and after counselling’ (p 331). John Weakland, invited us to distinguish between what he referred to as ‘clever therapist’ models as opposed to ‘clever client’ models and of course it would be easy to assume that the Solution Focused approach would be a ‘clever client’ approach, but in fact that is not necessarily so.

Last week we were thinking about ‘the home’ within which Solution Focused practice can live and thrive and we described it substantially in ‘letting go terms’ and one of the things that Solution Focused practice requires, in my view, is letting go of an over-inflated view of our own significance. Returning to John Weakland’s binary, this-or-that, description actually I think that the proposition that he offers us is misleading and that we should not buy in to its terms. We should not be thinking about this in either/or terms but in both/and terms. Solution Focused Practice is a ‘clever client’ and ‘clever therapist’ approach, just that the domains of cleverness are distinct. The client’s ‘cleverness’ is assumed to reside in their expertise in relation to their living, whereas the therapist's ‘cleverness’ is assumed to reside in the management of a therapeutic conversation. The Solution Focused practitioner’s ‘cleverness’ is conversational, it is a secondary sort of ‘cleverness’ with the client being the only person who can answer the truly important questions, what do I want, how do I want to live, what would be right for me, what sort of relationships do I want to have with those around me and indeed what will be my way of achieving this living. You could say that it is the client who answers all the important questions and makes all the important decisions while our knowing is a technical sort of knowing. In Solution Focus we, the clinicians, are assumed to know how to talk with people in such a way that they move their lives in their preferred direction, it is a small (although of course important) sort of knowing; we are mere technicians rather than gurus, or priests, or philosophers, or life-style experts, the people who believe that they can answer the question ‘how should you live’. And so it is I think risky in our field to get over impressed with ourselves, and indeed a capacity for humility is required to keep the client central, to listen so carefully to the client’s words and to work with the client’s reality rather than seeking to influence the client in our own preferred direction. We have to be aware of the risks of therapist ego!

This humility, a feature in my view, of the natural home of our approach, requires care in relation to language, how we talk in our field, since as we know it is language, words, that lie at the heart of everything that we do. And so when recently I saw advertising for a Solution Focused course which seemed to imply that we should aspire to becoming Solution Focused ‘geniuses’ I felt uncomfortable. Does the word ‘genius’ fit with our position, fit comfortably in our home, or might it lead us to become over-impressed with ourselves and our own skills, to begin to listen to ourselves and our thinking rather than to the client. Many of you will remember this lovely comment from Steve de Shazer (1990) “ . . . so I went off to learn how to do therapy magic à la Erickson and I’ve come 180º on that . . . the therapist doesn’t have the magic . . . the client has the magic and we’d better do something small and let the magic operate.” It does seem important to me that we concentrate on doing our small thing well and not let us selves get carried away with over-inflated ideas of genius.

So often ideas slip in from other models, where they might well fit and make sense, and are then uncritically assumed to have application in Solution Focus. I so hope that no-one in the field is going to start offering ‘Master Practitioner’ programmes in SFBT. Whilst it seems to me, as an outsider, to make complete sense in the world of NLP, there is something about that idea of ‘master’, in that idea of ‘mastery’ that I think is unlikely to help us. Would I want to develop mastery in my model; I think probably not. Look at the synonyms that pop up when we search the word ‘mastery’: control, superiority, domination, command, ascendancy, supremacy, pre-eminence, triumph, victory, the upper-hand, the whip-hand, rule, government, power, sway, authority. Oh dear I would not want any one of those words to characterise either my practice or my relationship with our approach. Collaboration on the other hand is at the heart of what we do, collaborating in partnership with our clients and collaborating with the approach that we use so that we can, as it were learn from each other. If you were to ask me what sort of relationship I would want with SFBT it is not mastery, no I would want us to be best friends, comfortable together, enjoying our time together, having fun, learning from each other, and bringing out the best from each other as really good friends do. That is a course that maybe BRIEF should offer ‘Becoming really good friends with the Solution Focused approach’. Would you come? Or would you prefer to try for mastery or aim at becoming a Solution Focused genius? Something else perhaps that we have to let go of when we are building our home for effective Solution Focused practice is being too impressed with ourselves.

de Shazer, S (1990) "Learning Edge" AAMFT teaching tape.

Duncan, B., Miller, S. (2000) The Heroic Client. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

McLeod, J., & Machin, L. (1998). The context of counselling: A neglected dimension of training, research and practice. British Journal of Guidance & Counselling, 26(3), 325–336.

Weiner-Davis, M., de Shazer, S., Gingerich, W. (1987) Building on pre-treatment change to construct the therapeutic solution: an exploratory study. Journal of Marital and Family Therapy, 13(4), 359 – 363.

Evan George


11 July 2021


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