The Centre for Solution Focused Practice

Making tough decisions!

Very often in Solution Focus we say ‘it is always the same – you always do the same thing’ but is it true? And is it true when people ‘just want to make a decision’? At BRIEF over the years we have worked with a number of people facing dilemmas and feeling stuck, dilemmas in relation to where should I live, should I stay in this country or return to the country of my family and my birth, should I stay in this job or leave, should I stay in my marriage or leave for someone else. Virtually always these dilemmas present themselves in situations where the outcome of either ‘horn’ of the dilemma cannot be accurately predicted and where each side of the decision is supported by differing values, loyalty vs excitement, duty vs self-interest, the known vs the unknown and thus are only to be compared with difficulty. By the time that people refer themselves to BRIEF they have usually been struggling with the dilemma for a while and have tended to ‘flip-flop’, first of all arriving at one conclusion and then flopping to the other and then flipping back, a process that can last for weeks, months and even years in people’s lives.

One question of course that inevitably occurs when people say to us ‘I just need to make up my mind . . . ‘ is to wonder whether making up one’s mind is actually a matter for therapy. When Harry Korman talks about the three necessary conditions that underpin ‘a common contract’, (Korman, 2004/2017) one of them is that the ‘best hope’ should ‘fit with the worker’s legitimate remit’. Is it our job, part of our legitimate remit, to help people to make decisions? Or is making a decision a life issue that all of us need to find a way of dealing with and managing and nothing to do with therapy? If we arrived at this view then how would we respond? We might acknowledge, ‘sounds like trying to arrive at a decision has been pretty tough’, the client is likely to say ‘yes’, and we could ask ‘so how will you know that you are looking after yourself really well while you work on sorting this out?’. Alternatively we might frame fundamentally the same thought a little differently ‘so how will you know that you are living a life that fits with you finding a way to make up your mind?’. Both these questions leave the dilemma squarely with the client, kindly acknowledging how tough it is, and invite the client to focus more broadly on their life context. The difficulty of the decision is effectively normalized by this shift of focus but making the decision is not accepted as a matter for therapy.

Of course this framing might not fit the client well enough and the client could respond during the course of the talking by saying ‘but that’s the problem with me – I am never able to make decisions – I am totally indecisive’. Clearly the frame has now shifted from ‘I can’t decide on this specific issue’ to ‘there is something wrong with me – I have a character flaw’. This shift potentially makes ‘decision-making’ an issue for therapy, not this specific issue but the pattern within which this one exemplum occurs. This complaint could be accepted as the equivalent of a ‘best hope’ and the worker might respond by asking ‘so if we did some talking and at some point down the track you were finding it easier to make decisions, would that make our talking useful?’. Assuming that the client concurs the worker can then ask ‘so tell me about the version of you who finds it easier to make decisions, what is that person like?’ and if the client responds by saying ‘that would be the confident, strong, decisive version who isn’t worrying all the time’, we could build with this response by saying ‘so imagine that you do indeed wake up tomorrow the confident, strong, decisive version of you who isn’t worrying all the time, what is the very first thing that you will notice?’. Following this we can engage the client in a ‘standard’, but always different, Solution Focused conversation.

Alternatively we could decide to accept ‘I just need to make up my mind . . . ‘ as a legitimate answer to the ‘best hopes’ question. If we were so to do we could then ask the client ‘and what difference would you hope that it might make when you have just made up your mind?’, and when the client says ‘I wouldn’t be so exhausted all the time, I’d be able to sleep, I wouldn’t be worrying . . . ‘ again that could lead us into a ‘standard' Solution Focused conversation. Describing the life that is consequent upon making the decision, the life that requires the decision to have been made, will we assume make a difference, although of course this reverse process is not always obvious to clients and they might challenge us ‘but how will this help?’.

When the client challenges the potential utility of such ‘standard’ Solution Focused conversations we have a choice do we stick or do we twist? If we stick we effectively take an expert position, drawing ourselves up to our full professional-credibility-height and say something akin to ‘believe me (I’m the expert) it just works so I will continue doing it’. There are of course politer ways of saying this but they pretty much amount to the same thing. On the other hand we can ‘twist’ and get closer to the decision that awaits making in this particular instance and Solution Focus offers us at least three pathways that we can take in this direction.

1. When you have had to make really tough decisions in the past what has worked for you? And if you were to do more of that now what difference would it make?
This is a straightforward application of the early Solution Focused exception-centred approach. Of course it is nearer to ‘problem-solving’ but the most important thing is that the client should get something useful out of the conversation.

2. As well as you could hope?
Another approach is to take each side of the dilemma and to invite the client to describe ‘things going as well as you could reasonably hope if you make that decision’. It is useful prior to doing this to include a third option of doing nothing, leaving things as they are.
You might also like to include the other side, the down-side of each decision overtly ‘so how will you know that you are managing the negative consequences of . . . as well as you could imagine?’.

3. On a scale?
There are all sorts of scales that can be useful in this context. We can ask people to scale ‘so how important is it to you that a decision is made?’, we can scale ‘how near are you to making a decision?’, or of course ‘how confident are you that you are going to make a decision at some point?’. As it happens clients tend to place themselves high on this scale and if and when they do then the focus can be shifted to ‘so how will you know that you are looking after yourself really well until that decisions gets made?’.

One more possibility for these times when nothing seems to work. This ‘intervention’ is not strictly Solution Focused even though it does echo and reflect words that Steve de Shazer could easily have spoken.
‘First thing in the morning I want you to toss a coin and if the coin comes down heads I want you to live the day as if you have decided to do (option 1), whereas if it comes down tails I want you to live the day as if you have decided on (option 2).’
You might like to add, in some circumstances
‘And it is up to you whether you go for the best of three or of five or of seven.’
This suggestion introduces the idea that the decision may be so finely balanced that actually the decision is effectively arbitrary, it slows down the flip-flopping so that the client can live a longer period of time ‘experiencing’ life from one position or the other and some clients might discover what they really want as they repeatedly extend the number of coin tosses to the get the ‘right’ answer.

Well – good luck to you all when clients want to ‘make a decision’ and please let BRIEF know what works for you in these situations.

Korman, Harry (2004/2017) SIKT The common project You can access this useful and interesting paper on the SIKT website.

Evan George
London
22nd September 2019