The Centre for Solution Focused Practice

Talking about the problem

Chris, Harvey and I started inviting Steve de Shazer to the UK in 1990 and we worked with him most years until his untimely death in 2005. There are still many questions that I wish that I could ask Steve about his thinking and his practice, questions that occurred to me too late, however we did have the good fortune to enjoy 15 years of friendship and of ‘mentoring’. One thing that I remember, and now makes me smile, are the times that Steve would be asked a question about how clients responded in Solution Focused sessions and he would answer ‘never happens to me – next question’. So coming up is a question from Paul Johnson, Counsellor, and I guess that I could respond ‘never happens to me – next question’ – but I won’t. I think that Paul raises something really interesting, something that concerns many people coming to Solution Focus, so I will try to set out some of my thinking.

‘I’m a counsellor of 10+ years’ experience. I like working in a Solution Focused way (following the approach I’ve learned at BRIEF over the past two to three years) as it often seems to bring really good results for clients and it can lead to conversations that are invigorating for the client and me. But I also find that, despite my starting out using the Solution Focused technique and intending to work this way, many clients seem to want – and perhaps need – to talk in depth about their problems before they’re able to respond to questions about what they want instead of the problems. Is it ok to spend a lot of time in the first few sessions on problem-focused talk if it seems to be what clients want? Or do I just need to get better at – and more disciplined in sticking to – the Solution Focused approach?’ (PJ)

1. Clearly we are all aware that In Solution Focused Practice there is no need for the worker to know anything about the ‘problem’. All that we ‘need’ for effective practice is to collect a set of words that can form the starting point for a Preferred Future description. Without these words we have no-where to go, we cannot start a Solution Focused conversation since we would not know how or where to focus. As Harry Korman said ‘if we do not know what the client wants we can have no questions to ask’. The client talking about the problem, directly, is not part of the change process within Solution Focus and thus is not technically necessary or required.

2. However we find that some clients when we meet them either spontaneously start talking about difficulties directly or when we ask the client Solution Focused questions respond to those questions with descriptions of difficulties.

3. So why does this happen – sometimes? Of course it is impossible to know; all we can do is to hypothesise and the risk is that we start to move beyond our observations, what people do, and we start to posit internal entities, ‘wants’ or ‘needs’.

4. However there are alternative possible explanations that do not require us to rely on these unobservables. Perhaps some people may have had therapy or counselling before and they have been ‘trained’ that talking about difficulties directly is what you do. Perhaps people have learned how to be a ‘good client’ by watching clients and therapists on television or in films where the client is invariably talking directly about problems. Perhaps talking about difficulties directly has been helpful to them in the past. Perhaps they have come across the idea ‘better out than in’ or how important it is ‘to get things off your chest’ and those ideas have made sense to them. Perhaps talking about difficulties directly has become habitual and, in some senses, ‘easy to do’. We cannot know for sure why some people respond in this way.

5. What I have observed in my practice is that when I started, in my very early days, using the Solution Focused approach my clients tended to spend more time, in the first session in particular, talking directly about the problem whereas now, if a client spends more than a few minutes talking directly about difficulties in a first session it is unusual (and fine).

6. So what has changed? Have my clients changed – or have I changed? And obviously that is a silly question. All that I can know is that the conversations that my clients and I have together are different and that the change in the way that we talk has coincided with other changes in my thinking. So what has changed in my thinking?

7. I have been convinced that there is no necessity for clients to talk directly about difficulties in order to change. In my early days of using Solution Focus lurking somewhere was the idea that clients did indeed ‘really need’ to talk about their problems, that people might ‘really need’ to get things off their chests before they could change. I no longer have this idea.

8. I used to think that it was rude to interrupt clients and that I should ‘hear them out’. I no longer think this. Instead I have the idea that since talking about difficulties ‘directly’ is not a part of the Solution Focused change process that if I am sitting listening to the client’s problem account that I am not working, I am not doing my job, that of a Solution Focused practitioner, that I am therefore short-changing the client. Not a good thing to do!

9. I am clearer than I used to be in my view that people have better things to do in their lives than talk with therapists, that life is for living not for talking about living. I am therefore clearer that the less time that someone spends talking with me and the more time that they spend ‘out there’ living life the better. So I tell myself that if I collude with clients doing things that are not a part of the active change process within the Solution Focused approach, that I am wasting my client’s time. And who would want to do that?

10. I have become clearer in my thinking that when clients are describing the Preferred Future that they are also talking about the difficulty that has brought them to see us. Clients who say ‘I guess that I would be more confident’ are also telling us that they don’t feel hugely confident right now; those who say ‘I’d be happy and have a spring in my step’ are telling us that that is not how life feels right now and those who say ‘I’d feel like getting up’ are alluding to their daily struggle to get out of bed. It is merely that we are inviting clients to tell us in the language of aspiration rather than the language of limitation and restriction. And I am confident that clients ‘get’ this. Indeed sometimes they make the connection obvious ‘well I’ve not been going out so I suppose that I’d be able to get out more’.

So when I suggested that ‘it doesn’t happen to me’ I don’t mean that none of the people I see talk about the problem directly however it would never occur to me, now, that people might either want or indeed need to ‘talk in depth about their problems’ (PJ) and so on a trial and error basis I am looking for ways to invite clients to describe the Preferred Future instead, asking a question and if the client does not go with the question waiting a little before asking again. My askings are often founded upon acknowledgement ‘sounds like things have been tough recently so how could you know that our talking together had been useful to you?’, ‘given that things have been so difficult how might you know that you were that bit more confident, that you were liking yourself a bit more and some glimmers of sunshine were coming back into your life?’.

Paul thanks for the question and there are some of my thoughts. I hope that some of them make some sense.

Evan George


20 November 2022


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