‘What if people are giving us the answers that they think that we want to hear?’, was a question asked this week on an introductory course by a participant working in Children’s Services. The question is an interesting one, the fact that it does not seem to be an issue for Solution Focused practitioners telling us something about the Solution Focused approach.
Let’s start by thinking about the circumstances within which it might make good sense for people to give professionals the answers that they think that those professionals are wanting to hear. Giving the ‘right’ answers only truly makes much sense in those situations where professionals have a view on how the client should be living and have the power/authority/right/duty to effect unwanted consequences upon the client in the events of the professional’s requirements not being fulfilled. Clearly this is characteristic of work in the fields of child protection, probation and drug use for example, and it is also a situation within which many adolescents feel that they find themselves, feeling that their life choices are being criticized and assuming that the quickest and easiest way of getting the bothersome (in their view) adult off their backs is just to give the answers that they think are required. So why are ‘right answers’ not an obvious issue within our approach.
1. The Solution Focused model is non-normative; practitioners - when they are ‘doing Solution Focus’ – genuinely have no view on how people should be living their lives. The work has no possible focus until people have answered the ‘best hopes’ question (George et al., 1990) or some equivalent. When working with young people I ask ‘so what are YOUR best hopes from our talking together? How will YOU know that our talking has been of use to you?’ with an emphasis on YOU and YOUR. When people struggle with this question I, hopefully nicely and kindly, persist and if after a series of varied and various repetitions of essentially the same question ‘what do you want from this?’ I will sometimes comment on what I am doing ‘I am trying to find out what YOU want from this since if I don’t know what YOU want it is going to be so hard for me to get this right for YOU’. If people respond by saying ‘my social worker told me that I had to see you’ I will answer with something on the lines of ‘and I am glad that you came – so what are YOUR best hopes from this – I guess that YOU must have had a good reason for coming even if it was your social worker’s idea for you to come’. It is YOU, the person we are working with, who is at the heart of the Solution Focused process. Given that we have no idea what people should want from us we cannot have any idea of what we should be talking about in sessions – there truly is no ‘right’ and therefore no ‘wrong’.
2. In addition we have no view on what specifically the client should be doing in order to move in the direction of their best hopes. We are interested in their own best way of moving forward. This means that we are not trying to ‘get’ the client to do anything in particular; we merely express curiosity about what they are doing that is working, that is useful to them in some way. Again there is no ‘right’ and no ‘wrong’.
3. Our friend Bill O’Hanlon in his book Change 101 writes 'If you're the therapist never be the most motivated person in the therapy room' (p 24). This fits for me with the position of relative neutrality that the Solution Focused practitioner chooses to adopt. It is up to the client whether the client changes or not. When people recount possible successes we focus on their view and not our view.
‘OK so you got out of the house twice this week and spent more time playing with the children were YOU pleased with this?’
Yes I was really.
And what in particular pleased YOU about getting out of the house and spending more time playing with the children?
Well it tells me that some of my energy is coming back, I have felt so exhausted recently.
And is that something that YOU would like to see continuing and developing?
So if it was continuing and developing what other small differences might YOU be pleased to notice over the coming weeks?
This response is very different from a ‘praising’ type response which risks centering the view of the practitioner and thus exacerbates the risk of people doing things to please us.
So in Solution Focused practice the worker genuinely has no view on what people’s best hopes should be, the worker has no view on how this should be achieved, has no view on who should attend, has no view on what the gap between sessions should be and centres the client in responding to successes. It is the word YOU that is highlighted and emphasised in the conversation. So even if people arrive assuming that the worker has their own agenda, that it is possible to ‘please’ the worker, even during the course of the first session people will discover that this is not the case. There are no right or wrong answers. Every answer is ‘right’ in the sense that it is the client’s own answer and it is our job to work with that ‘right’ answer.
NB Of course it is also true that some workers who want to use the Solution Focused approach are mandated workers, they feel obliged to ‘get’ people to focus on certain things. You can read more about the dilemmas of the ‘mandated worker’ in this short piece https://www.brief.org.uk/.../the-mandated-worker-4-ideas...
George, E., Iveson, C. and Ratner, H. (1990; Revised and expanded Edition 1999) Problem to Solution: Brief Therapy with Individuals and Families. London: BT Press
O’Hanlon, B., (2006). Change 101: A practical guide to creating change in life or therapy. New York: Norton
08 October 2023