The Centre for Solution Focused Practice

To interrupt or not to interrupt . . . that is the question.

This week I was teaching a Level 2 programme online - and a great treat that was with a truly lovely group. However one of the very best things about teaching, beyond any group’s particular loveliness, is being asked wonderful questions. On Friday one of the group, (I’m sorry that I don’t remember who it was), put a scenario to me. She asked me about a situation in which a client was going through a really tough situation and was talking about it at ‘great length’. ‘Would you’ she asked, ‘have interrupted?’. And the simple answer of course is ‘yes’ but the more interesting question is how do we explain that ‘yes’.

1. When I am sitting listening to the client describing their difficulty I am not ‘working’. I am only working when I start asking questions, since in Solution Focus it is the questions that are the intervention, it is the questions that we ask that have the potential, in the client’s answering of them, to lead to difference. Through the questions that we ask the client can begin to change their patterns of noticing, can begin perhaps to construct an alternate narrative; change, in other words, however we might choose to describe it, becomes possible. So if I am ‘merely’ sitting with the client paying attention to their story of distress I am cheating the client of the likelihood of change occurring, I am really not being kind. In this way it seems that Solution Focused practitioners may take the opposite view to many practitioners. Many people seem to regard interrupting the client recounting their distress as an act of unkindness, of harshness, whereas we might regard listening at greater length than strictly necessary as the perpetuation of a fraud upon the client, as wasting the client’s precious time and unnecessarily extending therapy.

2. Naturally the phrase ‘at greater length than strictly necessary’ raises a complex question, a judgement. If we do not subscribe to the ‘getting it off your chest’ version of therapeutic utility then what are we doing listening at all? Why do we not stop the client at once, at the very first mention of the terrible time that they have been having? ‘Stop there’ we might say, ‘I asked about your best hopes from our talking together and you are not answering my question’. Why would we not respond in that way? The answer lies in an observation that certainly I have made in my therapeutic work, namely that many people seem more able to step out of direct problem description when they feel acknowledged, and thus although technically I might have, and indeed do have no necessity to hear anything of the problem story, relationally the client may require to know that I know before the client feels willing or able to step with me into the Solution Focused world of possibility. Now naturally in our acknowledging we will not detain the client in their distress, asking distress focused questions, and yet we will be making a judgement about when the client is able to move on.

3. Feeling the right, indeed feeling the obligation to interrupt clients, rests upon the way that Solution Focus views the relationship between client and worker and we go back to the idea of the partnership between two experts, two experts in a room (or online) working together. The client is indeed the ‘content’ expert. The client is the self-evident expert on their own life, being the only person who can answer the question ‘so what are your best hopes from our talking together?’ And the worker is the ‘process’ expert, the worker bringing expertise in knowing about the sorts of conversations with clients that are likely to lead to the client reporting that change has occurred. There is no reason that the client should know what it is useful to talk about. That is the worker’s job. And so one might say that if the worker fails to interrupt, in the situation outlined by last week’s course attender, that the worker is not doing their job!

Thanks to this week's great Level 2 group for the question if I could credit you all jointly.

Evan George
13th December 2020.


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