The Centre for Solution Focused Practice

Problem talk vs solution talk or problem talk as part of solution talk

Back in the 90s, when Evan, Chris and myself were working at an NHS mental health clinic, we were joined by Jane Lethem, a clinical psychologist who went on to write Moved to Tears, Moved to Action, the first SF book to examine gender issues in relation to SF practice. She attended our Brief Therapy workshop when we saw clients in front of the team, with one-way mirrors and interconnecting phones and we took breaks to talk about a session and how to end it. One time I was seeing a woman in her 40s who I’d met on two previous occasions for mild anxiety and depression. In the session Jane observed, the client started in by saying that she had had an experience a few days earlier which, while nothing had been done to her, had re-awakened all her memories of the sexual abuse she’d endured as a child from her father, and now she was feeling suicidal. I knew nothing about this part of her history and could only listen as she went into a detailed account of what her father had done to her. In fact, I was somewhat paralysed, and felt unable to ask any questions. It seemed to me that just to interrupt was an intrusion, a kind of abuse. Finally, Jane buzzed through and asked me to come out for consultation. She then accused me of discriminating against my female client! Shocked, I asked why and she said ‘because you are depriving her of Solution Focused therapy!’ I asked what she thought I should do as I was fearful of interrupting and she said I needed to find out from her in what way the talking was helpful to her and would it be ok for me to ask her some questions. In other words, it was simply a matter of politely seeking permission to ask questions. I have found this invaluable advice on many occasions over the years. (After writing the above I dug out Jane’s book - which was published in 1994! - and found her account of this on p85.)

The reason this story came to my mind was that during a supervision session today attended on Zoom by a variety of different professionals from around the globe with varying levels of SF experience, we were discussing how we stay SF when a client seems fixed on ‘problem talk’. Ibrahim raised the question of whether directing the client to ‘solution talk’ was indeed SF practice or was it solution forced practice? And that’s when I remembered the importance of gaining the client’s permission to interrupt with SF questions.

During our discussion I repeated one of my favourite SF quotes. de Shazer said ‘we may be Solution Focused but we’re not problem phobic’. I explained that what he meant wasn’t ‘so all or any problem talk is ok’. I referred to my work as a volunteer counsellor for a bereavement charity. Clients who have been very recently bereaved have an obvious wish to talk about what has happened. If someone were to be able to pop in and observe some of a session, they might hear much talk of hard experiences and almost no questions from me, and they might say ‘so how is this solution focused? It all looks problem talk to me!’ But they would be missing the context. When a client answers the ‘best hopes question’ with ‘I need to talk’ I then check out how they will know talking will be useful to them and the difference it will make. The answers are often very vague (eg ‘to make sense of what’s happening to me' ‘to get on with my life somehow’) and hard to make more detailed, which I think fits with the confused and unstable situation they have been put into by life events, but it does give us a sense of direction. I then invite them to tell me whatever they think is important for them to say (and for me to hear). So my imaginary interloper would hear at that point what they might call ‘problem talk’ but which I know is actually part of the client’s move towards clarity and life. de Shazer said something to the effect that sometimes a client talking about problems can be a part of their solution – especially if they’re talking about something for the first time. If their telling is lengthy or grows repetitive, I then ask if it would be ok for me to ask some questions. Sometimes they indicate they just want to finish the bit they’re saying but usually they say ‘yes please!’. And then comes to mind my other most favourite SF quote, Bill O’Hanlon’s ‘keep one foot in acknowledgement and one foot in possibility’ and I say something like ‘so it’s been really tough and I’m wondering how you’ll know you’re moving forward in a way that does honour to them (the deceased person)?’

Lethem, Jane (1994) Moved to Tears, Moved to Action: brief therapy with women and children. London: BT Press.

Harvey Ratner


26th June 2022


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