The Centre for Solution Focused Practice

The client knows best - about many things!

Steve de Shazer not infrequently said something along the lines of ‘we cannot know what question we have asked until the client answers’. In a somewhat analogous manner he would also state that we can’t know whether a session was a ‘good session’ (not sure that he used that particular phrase but let’s go with it) until the client returns for another session and answers the ‘so what’s been better question?’. If the answer is ‘nothing has been better’ then it was not, in de Shazer’s view, by definition a good session. This centering of the client arises in other ways. After all in Solution Focused Practice we choose to have no view on the direction of our work with a client other than the client’s. We really do need an answer to the ‘best hopes’ (or equivalent) question before we can start work, because until the client answers we have no direction, no focus, we would not know what to talk about, how to construct our questions. The Solution Focused approach is, as a course attender once in amazement said to me at the end of a first day, ‘more person centred than Person Centred Counselling’. She was a Person Centred counsellor. And of course this core position that we take is also reflected in the idea that the client’s answer to any of our questions can never be wrong. Every answer by definition is the right answer because it is the client’s answer. When we ask a question we are not trying to ‘get’ the client to say anything in particular. We ask a question and build with the client’s answer whatever that answer might be. Even a ‘dunno’ accompanied by a shrug of the shoulders is the right answer, is a good answer, and it is never our place to become critical of our client.

However sometimes the client’s ‘rightness’ can be surprising. I recall a client, at the end of a successful piece of work, telling me how useful it had been to ‘talk about the problem’. Initially I was somewhat taken aback. I was relatively new to Solution Focus and had been trying not to talk about the problem. It was a long time later that the obvious, that should have occurred to me earlier, finally did in fact occur to me. We were both sort of right. In Solution Focus we do talk about the problem, just not directly – we do it indirectly. Slightly more puzzling have been those clients who have returned for a follow up session informing me that they have done what I suggested, and then have described what I apparently suggested, although as far as I could tell none of the credit for the ‘step taken’ was mine and all the credit should have been the client’s since I had suggested nothing specific. And another example popped up recently. On the Solution Focused list (SFT-L@LISTSERV.ICORS.ORG) a colleague, Jeff Lubin, wrote the following “I have a client who, in response to my questions, asks irritatedly why I have to know 'everything' about her”. Isn’t it interesting how the client’s experience can be so different from the worker’s intention. Typically in Solution Focus most of us start by requiring no referral information – we do not want to ‘know’ about the client in that way, we prefer to work with what the client chooses to tell us. I certainly often reassure people that there is no need for them to answer any question that they would prefer not to answer, that they are in charge. And the questions that we do ask are not intended for me to find out anything about the client. The sole purpose is for the client to hear their own answers. My only need is to listen for conversational opportunities; I listen for words in the client’s answer which can be incorporated into my next question. So Jeff’s client provides us with a lovely example of a time when the client’s experience is markedly distant from anything that falls within the worker’s intention.

Where does all this leave us? Well I do wonder if sometimes we experience what we expect to experience. Therapists are expected to ask questions to find out about us, to develop a ‘formulation’, and therapists who do this do indeed want to ‘know everything about us’. But there are questions and questions and Solution Focused questions are not intended to find things out merely to invite a useful description, our questions are the intervention – there is nothing else, unlike those more traditional models where the questions are the basis for developing a formulation upon which we shape the interventions. However despite this thought if a client complained to me that ‘I wanted to know everything’ I would thank the client for telling me, I would apologise for asking too many questions, I would re-iterate that there was no need for the client to answer any question out loud and ask the client to tell me if they felt that I was at risk of falling into this mistake again. The client was right!

With thanks to Jeff Lubin for putting this interesting response into our public domain.

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Evan George


05th May 2024


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