The Centre for Solution Focused Practice

Trusting or believing or trusting and believing?

Most of us are now all familiar with the idea that the toughest challenge in Solution Focused Practice is to fully trust our clients, indeed the idea that trust is a prerequisite, a foundational requirement for working in our Solution Focused way. We do, for example, have to trust our clients when they specify their best hopes since only trust allows us to resist the temptation to ‘know different’ or perhaps to ‘know better’ about what the client ‘really needs’. Only trust truly gives us the means to resist falling into the hierarchy of knowledge trap into which the ‘presenting problem’ and ‘underlying problem’ distinction, a distinction that turns up widely in the therapy world, so seductively invites us. Further we have to trust that the client can find their own way forward, since only on the basis of this trust can we stay strong in the face of the natural, and in some ways laudable, desire to help our clients, if necessary solving their problems for them. It is trust that allows us to keep asking questions rather than providing answers and it is trust that enables us to centralise the client in the change process rather than centralizing our own perceptions, our thoughts, and our solutions. However while musing on the role of trust another word has occurred to me, the word belief. Is belief the same as trust or is belief a little different from trust? Does trust encapsulate belief or does the idea of belief add something independently in our work?

The easiest way to start thinking about belief is to start thinking about belief in its absence. In my early years working as a Social Worker I recall, as I look back, working with a number of young people who had outrun the capacity of the adult world around them to believe in them, indeed pretty well no-one believed in them, no-one believed in their capacity to have successful lives. The general view was that many if not most of these young people would never amount to anything. And what has become clear to me, disappointingly slowly, is that people do not need workers who do not believe in them, workers who merely reflect back to clients their own lack of belief in their own abilities, in their own potential. Clients require workers who communicate their belief, who communicate their belief that they can indeed be successful in moving their lives forward. This belief is not typically verbalized, it is evidenced in voice tone, body posture, in eye contact. The client comes to know that this is what we think and the only way that we can get this belief into us, so that it can emerge, naturally and spontaneously, is by disciplining our observation, consistently watching out, constantly listening for those things that tell us that this client can change, strengths, capacities, skills, achievements, other changes previously made and so on. When we purposefully watch out and listen for these things then of course we are likely to notice them and when we notice them our perception of the client is changed in the direction of belief. This process contributes, it seems to me, in a minor way to our client being more likely to leave our session able to say with conviction ‘I can do this’!

The question of belief can however be addressed more directly in the body of the talking that we do with clients. I remember working many years ago with a woman who had taken major steps to take her life back from alcohol after many, many, years of abuse. She had been extremely successful in so doing and in our final meeting I was seeking to ‘firm up’ the changes that continued to amaze her, looking to find continuity where none seemed obvious, seeking to connect the changes made into the history of the person she had always been. The question that came to mind, and then to mouth, was a question drawn from my reading of Michael White. ‘Who’ I asked her ‘of all the people who had known her well in her life would be least surprised to hear of these changes that she had made in her life?’. The client paused and thought and started crying, indeed weeping, and having gathered herself she gave a name. Who I wondered was this person whom she had named and in response my client said that this person was a teacher who had known her at school almost 40 years prior. What I wondered had this person known about her that no-one since had seen so clearly and what stories of her life would this person tell if this person were to have been with us and asked to justify this confidence. Not only was my client able to tell me what this long distant person had known about her but she was able to speculate regarding the stories that she would have told, recounting them to me in the process. Since this time I have asked many clients similar questions ‘who do you think most believes in you? Who will be least surprised to hear that you have turned your life around? And what stories would she/he or they tell that would be the basis of their belief in you and your capacity?’

Thus indeed trust is necessary but perhaps we need to go beyond trust and discipline ourselves to step into a place of belief in our clients and beyond even that perhaps we can ask questions which connect our clients with those in their lives who believe, those who stand with them, those who just know that they can do it. Perhaps belief is a little different from trust and holding the idea of belief can lead our work in a different and fruitful direction.

Evan George
London