I have just spent a day, a fifth day actually, with a very lovely group of people working with, and for, children, families and asylum seekers in Surrey in the south of England, and one of the very lovely participants put her finger on the developmental challenge that most practitioners face when seeking to embed SF into their practice, commenting on just how hard it can be to learn to develop detail in Solution Focused conversations. And she is right. It really is one of the most difficult things to learn to do and it may be that we ourselves, those of us who teach the approach, are at fault.
Those of us who are fortunate enough to teach SF should perhaps ask ourselves why it is that what people tend to remember following an initial SF training are the big questions, the best hopes question, the tomorrow question or miracle question, the scale question and maybe exception and instance questions and coping questions. These really seem to most people to be the stars of the show. However this version of SF, which I fear we invite people into, neglects the backroom boys and girls, the foot soldiers, the ‘poor bloody infantry’, those who help to make the strategies of those out front in the lime-light actually work. These are the small questions, the true unsung heroes of our approach. Of these questions there are two which are perhaps jostling for greater visibility, putting in their own claims for star status, but still in truth in the second tier of celebrity, namely ‘what else’ and ‘what difference would that make’. Both of these questions can help us to build detail, whilst moving the conversation in different directions. We could say that ‘what else’ offers the conversations breadth whilst ‘what difference would that make’ is akin to a gear change or a side-step opening up new possibilities, new vistas in the interaction as we can see in the following sample . . . .
So how else would you know that things were improving at home?
He’d do what I ask him to do without me having to ask him a thousand times.
So if he were to do what you ask him to do without you having to ask him a thousand times what difference would that make to you?
I’d feel like I was being treated with some respect.
And I guess that that would be good feeling if you felt that you were being treated with some respect.
So what difference would that make?
I’d just be happier.
And that would be good?
So who might notice that you were happier?
Is she good at noticing?
So what might your sister notice that would tell her that you were happier.
Oh she’d notice that I was more up for things, that I was doing more, that I wasn’t complaining so much.
So if you were more up for things what might your sister notice you doing that you are not doing so much at the moment?
She always says that I should go out more, that I should see my friends more – she’d hear me talking about different things.
So if you were going out more and seeing your friends more what might your friends hear you talking about that would tell them and you that you were happier?
Just fun things, rather than complaining about the kids all the time.
And what would your friends be noticing about the way that you were talking about fun things that they’d be pleased to notice?
I’d be smiling more, I’d have more energy, I’d be joining in more and suggesting things that we could do together.
And they’d be pleased to notice that?
So how would you know?
They’d be more relaxed around me. They’d tease me like they used to rather than treading carefully in case they hurt my feelings or I get upset.
And would you like that if they were teasing you?
So how would they know that you were enjoying it?
I’d be joining in , I’d be giving as good as I got.
Great. So one sign that things were improving at home would be that you would be feeling that you were being treated with respect and that would make you happier, how else might you know that things were improving?
I’d wake up looking forward to the day, wanting to get up rather than lieing in bed and dreading it . .
This sample highlights a number of these unsung heroes. We see the ‘how else?’ or ‘what else?’ and we see ‘what difference would that make?’ but you will have noticed more. ‘Who would notice?’ is often coupled with ‘and how would you know that they’d noticed?’. This simple conversational ‘gambit’ often forms the basis for an interactional description when coupled with ‘and would you like them to respond to you this way?’, ‘yes’, ‘so how would they know that you liked it?’. Once we enter this world of interaction the potential for pursuing the sequence is literally endless, limited only by the client’s ability to imagine, the time available and the risk of tedium!
‘Who would notice?’ is also an invaluable member of the detail team. Asking ‘other person perspective questions’ means that the change can be described through the eyes of an infinite array of others, adding more and more small differences in the description. The other person perspective questions themselves can be framed in a range of different ways in such a way that even more diverse detail can be developed:
‘Who would be the first person to notice?’.
‘Who would be most pleased to notice?’.
‘Who would be most surprised to notice?’.
And in addition the world of things offers vast additional possibilities:
‘How would your phone know that you were happier?’.
‘How would your car know that your were calmer and more confident?’.
Most clients can tell us how their cars and their phones will notice but even more mundane items can offer invaluable addition descriptions. For example alarm clocks (for those who still have one), laptops or tablets, kettles and cookers all have their own very special ways of noticing as can the ubiquitous fly-on-the-wall that seems to get everywhere as well as dogs and cats and even gold-fish.
Finally when developing detail it is useful to bear in mind what I call first tier and second tier descriptions. Second tier detail facilitates the fine graining of the developing description in a way that personalizes.
‘so how will you know that you are finding your way again?’
‘‘I’ll be running – I know that it is good for me and that I feel better when I do’.
‘So what will you notice about yourself as you are running that will really tell you for sure that you are finding your way again?’
‘I’ll be aware of my surroundings – I’ll be noticing the flowers and the trees, I’ll be hearing the birds’
‘And what might be different about the way that you are running on a finding-your-way sort of day?’
‘There’ll be more oomph, more go, more energy’.
Even in this short sequence we move beyond the first answer ‘running’ to describe the self running and the way of running. This is not just ‘running’ it is ‘finding-your-way-running’ (1) the client’s first answer becoming the foundation for the fine-graining that makes the first broad brush answer much more vivid.
So it is indeed true that developing detail in preferred future descriptions can be challenging and yet when we deploy this range of questions, and with practice, detail will begin to flow and the greater challenge might become deciding when to stop.
(1). With apologies to all of you who are not familiar with the Marks and Spencer advertisements and who may not even have heard of M. & S.
And can I also thank Effie Crouch for asking the question that prompted this reflection.
10th November 2019.