This format, the ‘blog’, allows us to share our first thoughts. Books, articles and chapters are serious; they have to be thought through, the best that we can manage at this point in time, reflected upon, coherent. The ‘blog’ allows us to put our first thoughts out and to invite responses, to work out a position as we write rather than attempting to capture a ‘finalised’ (for the moment) position. Philip L. Graham, former President and Publisher of the Washington Post, said that ‘journalism is the first rough draft of history’. Well the ‘blog’ is somewhat similar. Certainly my conclusion today, the time that I got there, came as a bit of a surprise – certainly to me!
Lots of my reflection on Solution Focused Practice, what we do and how we conceptualise, is occasioned by questions that people ask during training programmes and this week I was asked another question that set me off thinking . . . . well got me burbling and whilst burbling perhaps I also thought a little. So what I was asked was ‘how would you respond if the client’s preferred future was to carry on drinking alcohol and using drugs?’.
The question is an interesting one and led me to a number of thoughts. My first thought was that no-one over all the years that I have been working with clients has ever said this to me which led me to wonder ‘why not?’. My guess is that people have not said this to me because I have not worked with enough clients where the fact of their drinking or their drug-use has been made an issue, where someone, either a family member or a professional is indicating that they should stop. The phrase ‘carry on’ only really makes any sense in a context where someone is saying that they should not carry on! The phrase is emphatic and assertive only truly making sense in a context of conflict, where an attempt is being made to alter or to control the behaviour of another person. ‘You have to stop drinking’. ‘No I won’t I am going to carry on!’. So assuming that I have not completely misunderstood, where might this thought take us?
Let’s start with whoever it is who is saying that the client should stop. First of all we can argue that the stopping is not what is actually wanted; what is wanted is a difference. The person who is saying ‘you have got to stop’ assumes that the stopping will lead to a difference in the client’s behaviour or living. It might be being assumed, for example, that when the client stops that they will be more reliable at work, that they won’t be missing repeated Mondays, or that they will be more present in a relationship, or that they will be more attuned to their children’s needs, or that they will stop offending, or that their health will be better. So it is not the stopping that is wanted, it is the difference that the stopping will perhaps make – we cannot know for sure – that is desired. So to say ‘you need to stop drinking’ is a short-cut, even perhaps a slightly lazy short-cut, since if the client can achieve the desired change whilst continuing with the drinking or the drug-use what business would it be of ours to say that the client should stop. Thus it might be argued that the drinking/drug-use is no business of ours, whilst it is often the case that we have every right to expect the behaviour that we assume will flow from the difference; it is there that our business may lie. So where might this thought lead us?
‘And I’ll be carrying on drinking if I want to – it’s my right and no one should tell me that I can’t’
‘It sounds from the way that you are saying that that there are people out there who think you should be stopping? Have I got that right?’
‘Yes all the professionals say that I have got to stop and that unless I do I won’t get the children back.’
‘OK and what difference are all the professionals assuming that you stopping drinking will make? What are they hoping for?’
‘They say that I’ll be a better parent, that I’ll be more reliable and more responsible?’
‘And would you want to be that more reliable and responsible parent to your kids and to have a better chance of getting them back?’
‘Yes of course.’
‘Well let me ask you this – on a scale of 0 to 10 with 10 standing for you being completely confident that you can be that reliable responsible parent that you want to be and the professionals want you to be while you are drinking the way that you are right now, and 0 standing for no chance, where would you see yourself right now?’
‘Well obviously not while I am drinking as much as I am right now.’
‘OK – so not while you are drinking the amount that you are drinking at the moment?’
‘So you’d need to be drinking less?’
‘Yes – like controlled drinking – like all the professional do – they all have their two glasses of wine in the evening or even more than that.’ (Couldn’t resist this. A client did say this to me many years ago.)
‘Ok so controlled drinking and have you made that work for you and the kids in the past?’
‘Well – yes – but not for a really long time – for a couple of weeks – and then I’m back.’
‘Mmmm – so that’s tricky for you – you want your kids back – you want to be a reliable and responsible parent – you feel that no-one should be telling you to stop drinking – ‘it’s your right’ – drinking as much as you are drinking right now you don’t think is going to work for the kids – and yet controlled drinking hasn’t really worked for you in the past. That’s really tricky?’
And Steve de Shazer at this point might ask – ‘so what are you going to do?’ Although of course the first part of the conversation would have been rather better if Steve had been the therapist! So now at least we have got alongside the client in a potentially helpful position rather than being experienced by the client as ‘bossing them about’ – ‘no-one is going to tell me what to do?’ Telling people to stop rarely works. I guess that the clinical question might be what sort of conversation might we have whereby the client tells us that they need to do something different?
Our colleague who raised this question works in an intensive intervention programme working with families with long-standing parenting challenges and just ignoring the statement ‘and I’ll be carrying on drinking’ as I, in my independent therapy context might be able to do, may just not seem feasible. I personally would assume that as the client makes other changes in their life then those changes are highly likely to impact their drinking and I, in my setting, could wait. However, to suggest to someone working in children’s social care that they should merely ‘trust the process’ is unlikely to enhance the credibility of the model. And, of course, there are other ways of addressing this client statement. Perhaps we’ll explore more ideas. What do you think?
If this situation is of relevance in your practice you might like to have a glance back at the ‘blog’ that I wrote back in the summer and posted on 31st August on the BRIEF website 'blog' where the pieces that most interest all of you are copied - the second draft perhaps!
30th January 2022