Just a few weeks ago Alun Parry hosted an edition of the UKASFP blog which featured Eve Lipchik, one of the key figures in the first Brief Family Therapy team at Milwaukee working alongside Steve de Shazer and Insoo Kim Berg amongst others. Listening to the podcast there were many things that Eve said with which I disagreed, at times strongly, and of course there were others where I absolutely agreed with her.
One thing that Eve said with which I absolutely agreed was that in the writings about the approach some foundational elements of practice may have been under-emphasised perhaps, I believe, because they have been taken for granted. One of these is the relational requirement, as she sees it and I agree, to acknowledge our clients’ distress and the painful feelings that the client may be experiencing. Eve worries about the way that practitioners may have been beguiled, indeed led astray, seduced, even corrupted by the approach’s leading authors to somehow ignore feelings, betrayed and let down because of the malign influence of a flawed line of development that leads back to Steve de Shazer who she states, rather oddly, ‘did not like feelings’.
My thought on listening to Eve was that she is worrying unnecessarily and even though it may be true that acknowledgement has been under-emphasised in the literature, in practice we SF practitioners do exactly what she believes to be appropriate because we are sensible. Interestingly when I talk about acknowledgement on training programmes I often refer to Eve and to her injunction to us all to always remember that first of all we are all human beings and second we are therapists and that only third are we solution focused brief therapists. I take this to mean that our reading of what it means to be Solution Focused should never lead us to do anything ‘inhuman’! And of course ignoring our clients’ distress is not only bad therapy, after all it does not ‘work’, but it is also ‘inhuman’.
As we look at Solution Focused sessions over and over we see practitioners responding to distress. We see practitioners acknowledging distress overtly ‘sounds like the last few months have been really tough for you’, we see practitioners acknowledging through a clear and obvious shift in voice tone and body posture and of course we see the client’s distress being ‘taken account of’ through the shaping of the next question that the practitioner asks, for example shifting to a ‘coping/survival’ question ‘gracious it sounds like you’ve been through a really difficult time – how on earth have you managed to keep going’. There is not one example of work that I show on training programmes where the client, I believe, could have doubted that the worker has ‘heard’ their distress, even when the client was not being invited to dwell in the distress, to tarry there, through a ‘tell me more about that’ sort of question.
This thought that maybe there are some things that we do not emphasise in the writings left me thinking about what else gets left out of the books and the articles and perhaps the teaching on our approach. Many of the key texts introduce readers to a SF taxonomy, exploring a range of different ‘types’ of questions. For example we might talk in terms of ‘commissioning questions’, ‘preferred future questions’, ‘what’s working questions’, ‘highlighting progress questions’. Different practitioners may organize the questions that we use in different ways, but it does always seems the ‘best hopes’, ‘tomorrow’, ‘miracle’, ‘instance’, ‘exception’, ‘coping’ and ‘scale’ questions are the stars of the show, the questions who are invited to stand proud in the lime-light at the front of the stage. But what are those other questions, in the relative shade at the back of the stage, the equivalent of the session musicians who are filling out the sound, enriching it, making the track work, modestly getting on with the business, whilst allowing the stars to busk (or perhaps bask) in the glory? It seems to me that at the very least we have ‘scene-setting questions’, ‘collaboration questions’ and ‘thickening the description questions’, all of which play a vital part in pretty well all of my SF conversations but which probably do not receive the credit that they deserve.
So thank-you Eve and Alun. Even though I was heartily, and hopefully collegiately irritated at more than a few points in the podcast, I am grateful to have been, indirectly, reminded of the need to draw more attention to the lesser, but necessary, players at the back of the SF stage.
For those of you who might be interested in reading more about Steve de Shazer’s thinking about ‘emotions’ I would refer you to the paper that he co-authored with Gale Miller entitled ‘Emotions in Solution-Focused Therapy: a re-examination’ (Miller and de Shazer 2000). Having read this it would be impossible, in my view, to take seriously the somewhat simplistic position into which the podcast seems to invite us, the idea that SFBT was developed by men, and in particular by men who were in Eve’s view emotionally illiterate and as a result of this gender-based limitation or restriction, SFBT has failed to ‘deal with’ emotions.
Miller, G., de Shazer, S., 2000. Emotions in Solution-Focused Therapy: a re-examination’. Family Process vol 39 no 1 pp 5 – 23.