The Centre for Solution Focused Practice

LISTS: one of the simplest therapeutic conversational guides.


So much of the current repertoire of SF conversational guides have arisen almost by accident.

The first list was elicited by Kieron Lynch when he was a Probation Officer in the late 90s. He had invited Chris Iveson to spend a day with him seeing clients and on this occasion Chris was filming while Kieron interviewed. The client, George, was in his 40s and had spent much of his adult life in jail for repeated offences. He had always made his living by criminal methods and was expected (even by himself) to continue in that line of work. However, with his Probation Officer he had to pay some lip service to the idea of ‘going straight’. When asked how he was managing to do this he referred to the weather: sunshine helped him do the right thing, grey clouds and rain led him back into crime. Chris, from behind a mirror-screen began to feel a little frustrated with George and his vague promises and born out of this frustration rather than any serious thought he suggested that Kieron ask George for a list of 35 things he had done in the past week that fitted with him going straight. It was a struggle but by the 33rd item George was smiling broadly. Later, George told Kieron that it was one of his seemingly insignificant answers that led him to see the possibility of leading an entirely different life. Long term follow-up, since George had to stay in touch with the probation office, confirmed that he was, indeed, leading a different life.

Here is where colleagues are crucial. In a small group, committed to what they do, anything done today will have its origins in the many conversations that went before, or, in this case, afterwards. If such a crude device as a list had an impact on George it must have been a fluke – a one-off intervention to suit the circumstances and not to be thought more of - until Yasmin Ajmal (at that time part of BRIEF) asked if anyone had a tape of Probation work. I said I only had George and it wouldn’t be any good for teaching. She took it anyway and George was forgotten, except by Yasmin. Some months later, Yasmin, who did a lot of work with schools, began talking about the usefulness of lists. At first, we assumed this was a school-specific idea and left it at that but, eventually, Chris thought he had better give it a try. This coincided with, Sasha, a teenage mother being referred. Her child was seen to be at serious risk and for many complex reasons the mother was considered incapable of providing adequate care. In the first session Sacha came up with a list of 38 ways she might be a good mother and over the next few days the extensive professional network saw a profound and lasting change.

Rather sheepishly, Chris apologised to Yasmin for not taking her seriously enough about lists and thanked her for her inspiration. She reminded him that it was the session with George that inspired her, the one where he had been supervising Kieron.

The continuing success of list-led conversations created something of a dilemma for us: we wanted to pass the skill on but were worried that such an essentially crude device would cause derision. Eventually, we found a way and presented at a conference in another country. Half expecting to be booed off stage Harvey and Chris showed video of George with Kieron and we were all warmly received.

At BRIEF we haven’t used lists everyday, perhaps not even every month, but lists have remained with us in our repertoire, one possible choice amongst many conversational guides.

Chris Iveson


09 May 2021



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