The Centre for Solution Focused Practice

The ‘confidence’ scale

I have been looking back over my case notes of the last few months and I’ve noticed a trend in relation to my use of scale questions.

I employ an overall scale question in almost every session I do. By ‘overall’ I mean that I am enquiring as to where the client thinks they have got to ‘now’, whether the session is a first or a follow up, in relation to their preferred future (the outcome of their having achieved their best hopes from our work together).

What I sometimes add is a ‘confidence’ scale. This is not a measure of their self-confidence but of their confidence in reaching the 10 on the overall scale, where 10 is total confidence and 0 is no confidence. An occasional variation is asking about their confidence of maintaining progress, or of moving up one point in a week or more. And now I’ve noticed that I am asking this type of scale in almost every session as well.

I have never properly understood what the point of this scale is - and why de Shazer and his colleagues introduced it in the first place. I have been looking into some of their writings where they describe the use of such a scale but haven’t yet seen any explanation as to where the idea of rating confidence came from.

The 10 on the overall scale represents a range of behaviours, thoughts and feelings the client is hoping to have in future. When asked where they think they are now, they are likely to say ‘I feel I’m at…’ Although, therefore, the number they give is based on a gut feeling, when we explore what the number represents we are back to drawing out action, thinking and feeling descriptions.

The 10 of the confidence scale is, clearly, about a feeling only. But once we get a number, we use it in the same way as before – ‘how come that high? What gives you that much confidence?’ – and we are back with actions, thinking and feelings again.

So it looks like the use of this feeling question is a way-in to more action talk. But of course the choice of ‘confidence’ isn’t a chance one. Berg & de Shazer in a chapter on scale questions called Making Numbers Talk (1993) say in relation to a case ‘these acts in the direction of her goal … can be further constructed to increase the chances for Joan’s success and to bolster her confidence that she can meet her goals’ (emphasis added). Actions and feelings go together and while we tend to emphasise the former in SF work, feelings are not ignored.

de Shazer introduced other scales that relate to feelings – again, not feelings in themselves but feelings about the work the client is engaged in in bettering their life. One such scale I occasionally use is ’10 equals this is the most important thing in your life right now and 0 is you don’t give a damn about it’. A similar one is ’10 equals you’ll do anything you humanly can to achieve this, you’ll walk on hot coals in bare feet if you have to, and 0 is you’ll sit on your butt and wait to see what happens’.

With the confidence scale then we are clearly asking about a feeling. So if, for example, the client gives a very low reading for their confidence, this has to be taken seriously as a kind of warning that they don’t feel it’s likely they’ll make progress. If I ignore their pessimism, it’s likely that they’ll come back - if they come back - and report no progress. In that case I use the low rating of confidence to ask about how they will cope with set backs and how they and others might know that they were at least maintaining the level they were at on the overall scale.

Talking of feelings, let me go back for a moment to the gut feeling I have when I’m about to ask a confidence scale question. I know I don’t have to ask it. I have this sense that bringing their confidence into the conversation will add another spur to action – it might enhance their motivation.

Motivation is not a word that SF people like to use as it implies a thing that people either have or don’t have. Instead we assume all clients are motivated towards something and we just help direct their attention towards what they really want. But what is the point of all those action-descriptions if not to help encourage them towards taking action? And isn’t encouragement linked to motivation?

I mentioned what might happen if a client gives a low confidence score but this doesn’t happen often in my experience and looking at my notes I can see that some clients give high confidence ratings - higher than where they have put themselves on the overall scale. When we start to examine how come their confidence is high, the client is able to remember more aspects of their lives, resources as it were, that are valuable for them to think about. And when asked what others might say is their confidence in them, the scores are often higher still.

Harvey Ratner


30 October 2022


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