Many of us living in the UK might agree that times are horrible. We seem to be more deeply divided than at any other time that I can recall living through. I find myself regularly and repeatedly infuriated listening to the news, shouting at politicians on the television, and finding it harder and harder to assume any sort of good-will on ‘their’ part. My world is dividing more and more sharply into an ‘us-and-them’ sort of world where I find it almost impossible to be interested in, to take seriously, to give my attention to ‘their’ ideas. All that I can see in ‘their’ world is callousness, a disregard for growing poverty and hardship, bigotry in its exploitation of prejudice and difference, self-interest in a likely Brexit-facilitated erosion of hard-won social rights, dishonesty, short-termism and of course precisely the same ‘us-and-themism’ within which I am also finding myself uncomfortably trapped.
Their ‘us’ is predominantly white, older, male, middle-class, affluent, English, southern, (all rather like me). However their ‘us’ also believes in charity-begins-at-home, believes in equal opportunity as long as there is no positive discrimination that might hurt me or my children, believes in ‘freedom-to’ rather than ‘freedom-from’ and thus in shrinking the state and the inevitable hollowing out of the public services which provide a vital life-line for so many, and their ‘us’ definitely stops at the shores of the UK, actually at the borders of England, little England, plucky little England, their ‘sceptred isle’*. And of course the terrifying populist and nationalist demogoguery within which all of this is delivered with its dog-whistle invitations to racism and prejudice all of which serves to legitimate and incubate ever greater violence and separation all come together to challenge us in our work. It is hardly surprising that we are asking ourselves questions about what is ethical, about how we should do our jobs, about SFBT and how it sits within our increasingly divided and polarized times where it can feel that to take no overt position is to side with ‘them’. I will attach below two examples of the way that our field has been addressing these issues, the SFU response to the El Paso shooting, and the Solution Focused Collective’s Manifesto.
Elliott Connie and Adam Froerer representing the SFU write ‘From its inception, the founders of the SF approach were challenging the status quo. They built an approach that was built on respect and interacting with the best of people. This radical belief of respect grew to create changes in many different fields. This approach is indeed creating a better world. In these times we cannot shy away from what has always been a part of the SF agenda; positive social change. We have a moral and ethical duty to use our Solution Focused skills to carry the torch of positive change forward.’ Let me say at once that my heart beats in complete sympathy with the sentiments expressed in this piece, with all of it, and yet I do have questions. The founders of SF are no longer here to ask, with the exception of course of Eve Lipchik, but did the founders have any sense of challenging the status quo, was that part of their intention, or was the challenge a side-effect of their interest in effective therapy? I suspect that the challenge was more a side-effect. Of course SF does radically shift and redefine the nature of the relationship between the worker and those whom we serve, redistributing expertise. In many models the worker is the holder of both the process and the content expertise, the worker knows about the process of change but the worker is also expert on clients’ lives, the worker knows what is ‘really’ going on and therefore tends to hold lightly clients’ own ideas, always feeling free to know better or perhaps in their terms ‘deeper’. In SF we truly assume that clients are the only experts on their own lives, and this is radical and this is different and this does involve a significant and meaningful shift in the ‘status quo’ as Elliott and Adam say. And I agree that this shift, which Elliott and Adam refer to as ‘a radical belief of respect’ is rippling through many fields and is making a difference that could be termed as ‘positive’, in other words a change that fits with our own preferred futures in terms of the way that we would aspire for clients to be treated. And then they add ‘we cannot shy away from what has always been a part of the SF agenda; positive social change’ and I find myself wondering whether this is actually true. In the early writings on SF I can see no references to any social agenda of change, no clear aspiration towards ‘positive social change’; all that I can find in the texts is a focus on how to do therapy. Indeed SF has often been attacked and criticised for the lack of any sort of contextualisation of clients’ experiences, for the choice that it makes not to introduce into our conversations with clients ideas of racism, poverty, sexism as factors that shape clients’ lives. If the client says that they want to change we accept that wish and work with the client towards that wish rather than introducing into the conversation our own ideas relating to causation. When Steve de Shazer was challenged specifically about this ‘failure’ or this ‘choice’, depending on where you stand, he responded by saying that therapy and politics are separate, and that politics is something that you do in your private life not in your role as a therapist, but is this position statement in any sense still possible.
The Solution Focused Collective’s Manifesto seems to me to overtly challenge de Shazer’s position. They write ‘we believe that power analyses and a consciousness of power relations are essential elements of change work, whether working with individuals or groups, or joining together in collective actions’. They then add ‘to realise our hopes, we aim to develop our solution-focused practice so that :it acknowledges the social, structural and environmental causes of people’s distress and difficulties :its application with individuals pays attention to their social context ; it extends beyond the realm of the individual to embrace collective and social action’. In current SF practice the worker aspires to bring as little as possible to the session apart from a set of questions. We try to add nothing to the conversation apart from our questions which as far as possible are life-content free. We ask the client ‘so what are your best hopes from our talking together’. Of course this question adds the idea of ‘hopes’, indeed ‘best hopes’, and the assumption that the client has some. It could be said that we are co-constructing with the client the idea of ‘hopefulness’. And when we ask the tomorrow question we are proposing to the client that they can know how life would be different if their ‘best hopes’ were happening. The scale question proposes a way of conceptualizing what is going on in relation to the ‘best hopes’, that this can be measured on a scale, that this is a valid and sensible way of describing. However the content of the client’s answer in SF is their own. The SF practitioner does not listen for meaning, is not listening through the response and considering what might be the causes underpinning what the client is experiencing and describing. In order to do this the practitioner would need to bring into the conversation a set of ideas about how life works, how the world works and would need to contextualise clients’ responses within a broader set of ideas that the worker brings with her. In SF we are not listening through or around, we are merely listening for opportunities, elements of clients’ answers upon which to hang the next question. Each question is built on clients’ previous answers and the decision about which part of clients’ answers to pick up and build is based largely on our reading of the SF model. Now of course to suggest that we only introduce questions would be naïve and foolish. As soon as I sit down with a client the mere fact that I am white, male, older, middle-class, professional (no particular order) will impact on what the client will choose to say to me and how the client will choose to say what they have to say and in this way I am shaping the client’s content response. Further the way that we read the SF approach and the way that that impacts on our choice of question is very personal and therefore more of the worker is coming into the session and shaping how clients are invited to respond. However this is I think significantly different from consciously importing into the session a set of thoughts about ‘social, structural and environmental causes’ and offering those thoughts to our clients. Indeed when I sit with clients I try to focus my attention on clients’ words, what they are saying, and to clear my mind of other thoughts and ideas that I might have.
The proposal by the Solution-Focused Collective is therefore a radical shift, in my view, to what we have been doing as practitioners. In some ways it might be said to sit more easily with the work of our Narrative colleagues who have always been proud to pay attention to context in this way while we have, rather unfashionably in many ways, continued to focus on the client, what the client is saying, to centralise the client’s own thoughts and thinking and words, trying, and invariably failing, to introduce as little of ourselves into the work as possible such that the client can have the experience ‘I did it!’. The SF practitioner has traditionally sought to minimize and to marginalize the self of the worker and to centralise the client. As George Lakoff (1980) in his book ‘The metaphors we live by’ reminded us, metaphors highlight some things and conceal others, there really are no free lunches as it were, and that is true in therapy; if we bring in our own thinking and awareness, it will impact on the client’s experience of being central in the conversation.
So where have we reached? Of course tough times challenge us, they invite us rightly to reflect on our practice. Does what we do face the test of the times? Is SFBT any longer of relevance in today’s world? Is the experience of sitting with a worker who stays with you, and works with what you bring rather than introducing their own ideas, sufficient or is this merely colluding with ‘them’? However we should be aware that if we view SF as having a ‘positive social agenda’ and if we act on the idea that we should be acknowledging ‘the social, structural and environmental causes of people’s distress and difficulties’ in our work with them, then this is no mere tweak this is a fundamental change. Tough times – tough choices.
Lakoff, G. & Johnson, M. (1980). Metaphors we live by. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
18th August 2019
*‘This royal throne of kings, this sceptred isle,
This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars,
This other Eden, demi-paradise,
This fortress built by Nature for herself
Against infection and the hand of war,
This happy breed of men, this little world,
This precious stone set in the silver sea,
Which serves it in the office of a wall
Or as a moat defensive to a house,
Against the envy of less happier lands,--
This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England.’
William Shakespeare, "King Richard II", Act 2 scene 1