The Centre for Solution Focused Practice

Solution Focused and Person-Centred therapy: a brief note.

The other day I found a pristine edition of Carl Rogers’ book ‘On Becoming a Person’ in a charity book-shop. Having myself become a person who finds it hugely difficult to leave copies of worthy books on the shelves of charity shops it was necessary to buy it and to bring it home, where I found another copy of the same book that I bought many years ago, probably in similar circumstances and probably from the same shop.
Anyway this chance find invited me to open it up and have a flick through the pages and this has been interesting. People on Solution Focused training courses do occasionally refer to Person-Centred work and ask about, or comment on, the perceived similarities and differences between the two approaches. Latterly such comments and questions have been fewer and farther between however over the years there are three comments linking the two approaches that have stood out for me.
‘Carl Rogers with a twist’ BRIEF invited our friend and colleague Bill O’Hanlon to London to present his work on many occasions, and he was invariably received by enthusiastic audiences who duly left his trainings feeling inspired, and on one occasion I heard him use the phrase ‘Carl Rogers with a twist’, a phrase that made me smile at the time and has stayed with me. I subsequently found the phrase appearing in one of Bill’s books A Field Guide to PossibilityLand (O’Hanlon & Beale, 1996) where he wrote ‘Acceptance and change. Acceptance and change. Remember these three words, because they are the essential components of therapy. Like Carl Rogers, we accept people where they are right now, and help them accept themselves. But then we add a little twist. We communicate, “where you are now is a valid place to be, AND you can change.” Then, using a variety of skillful means we help them do just that’ (p 16). So the similarity lies in, as O’Hanlon puts it, the ‘acceptance’ which can perhaps be equated with Rogers’ ‘unconditional positive regard’ (Rogers, 1961). At BRIEF we might not use the word ‘acceptance’, nor the phrase ‘unconditional positive regard’, but we do talk about ‘radical trust’ and it may well be that for a client, sitting with a therapist who ‘accepts’, a therapist who ‘trusts’ or a therapist who experiences ‘unconditional positive regard’ towards you might feel pretty similar. For BRIEF ‘trust’ runs right through the therapeutic process as indeed we set out recently here on this blog (13 September 2020).
The similarity is obvious therefore but where is the twist, the difference, to be found? O’Hanlon explains this in terms of his work focusing on change and helping the client to do precisely that. I might highlight the difference in terms of what we do in the session. At the core of Person-Centred work, whilst inevitably much more complex than I am implying, lie practices of reflection, reflection based on acceptance, genuineness and the communication of ‘empathetic understanding’ and of course Person-Centred is often described as a ‘non-directive’ approach. Solution Focused Practice on the other hand centres on a set of questions that we ask clients, questions that serve the purpose of negotiating a shift in the client’s in-therapy talking from ‘problem-talk’ to ‘solution talk’ (de Shazer, 1994). Engaging clients in ‘solution talk’ or perhaps engaging clients in describing elements of their lives in particular ways is the limit of our aspiration in the Solution Focused process, other than hoping that the client who comes to us describing their life as problematic leaves us describing their life differently. And whilst I would argue strongly with those people who like to suggest that Solution Focused Practice is ‘directive’ – I certainly feel that it is not – we would certainly own the idea that the questions that we ask people are directional, they are designed to shift the client’s attention, inviting the client to describe their life in a particular way but we have no view on any preferred outcome, no view on what the client should do in their life, either between sessions or in the longer term.
‘Asking questions is juvenile.’ The centrality of questions in Solution Focus reminds me of another brush with the Person-Centred approach that stays with me from many years ago. I was teaching Solution Focused Practice in the North-West of England, on Merseyside, and on the training there was a group of Person-Centred practitioners who had trained locally in the approach. Half-way through the course a ‘representative’ of this group, speaking on behalf of all of them, said that they liked Solution Focus but were really struggling. Enquiring why they might be struggling the spokesperson said that they had been taught that ‘asking questions is juvenile.’ This comment led to a fascinating discussion about the nature of questions in the Solution Focused approach and to a clarification of the function of questions in our work. Asking questions is typically viewed as a way of ‘finding out’, finding out about the client finding out what is going on, understanding what is happening and thus figuring out how to intervene. But Solution Focused questions are just not like that. In Solution Focus the questions are the intervention, but it is the client hearing their own answers that make the difference. So in asking questions we are co-constructing a narrative with the client, a version of their life that fits with the likelihood of progress in the client’s preferred direction.
‘More Person-Centred than Person-Centred.’ I was delivering a Solution Focused training at BRIEF some years ago and during the course of the training, and following a video of my work that I had shown, a participant said to me that she had trained in Person-Centred and that ‘Solution Focused is more Person-Centred than Person-Centred’. The comment made me smile and I have to say that I enjoyed it and yet I was sceptical, but perhaps I did not know enough about the approach to be able to judge the correctness, or otherwise, of the compliment being paid. Flicking through ‘On Becoming a Person’ I remembered this comment and have come to think that it may be true. The basis for wondering about that is reading Rogers’ thoughts about the ‘Fully Functioning Person’. His comments are really interesting and amongst them we find ideas such as ‘The individual is becoming more able to listen to himself (sic), to experience what is going on within himself. He is more open to his feelings of fear and discouragement and pain. He is more open to his feelings of courage, and tenderness, and awe.’ (p 188). So Rogers posits a view on what sort of person ‘a fully functioning person’ should be. And as soon as we have ideas of ‘should’ it is impossible not to hold aspirations for our clients that impact on the work that we do. Now Solution Focus of course has no idea about how people should be. It is entirely non-normative, and thus the only direction for the work is determined by the client’s answer to the ‘best hopes’ question (George et al., 1999). Solution Focus has no theory of person, no picture of the person, fully functioning or otherwise. All that interests us is talking with the client in such a way that the client reports to us that they have made sufficient progress. It might thus be said that Person-Centred therapy has content aspirations for the client, knows something about the sort of person that the client could usefully become, whereas Solution Focus merely has process aspirations, ideas about the sort of conversation that we might have with the client that is associated with change. ‘More Person-Centred than Person-Centred’? Well it may be that my participant on that course some years ago could have got it right!
de Shazer, Steve (1994) Words were Originally Magic. New York: Norton.
George, E., Iveson, C. and Ratner, H. (1990; Revised and expanded Edition 1999) Problem to Solution: Brief Therapy with Individuals and Families. London: BT Press
O’Hanlon, B. (1996) A Field Guide to PossibilityLand. London: BTPress
Rogers, C. R. (1961). On becoming a person: a therapist's view of psychotherapy. Boston: Houghton Mifflin
Evan George
London (under lock-down again)
08 November 2020


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