This question is another of the questions frequently asked by course participants about the approach. And as with so many other frequently asked questions it is not easy to answer in a way that the questioner might have hoped – straightforward and simple guidance along the lines of ‘use it here, maybe here but never there’. I am often tempted to answer by saying ‘well . . . it doesn’t work when it doesn’t work’, in other words indicating we have no clear evidence of ‘presentations’ where Solution Focus ‘doesn’t work’. We can’t say that it doesn’t work with individuals or couples or organisations or where there is violence or conflict or in relation to any clinical categorisation or with younger or older or more or less articulate people or . . . . But even to offer that clarification is confusing and not accurate because of that little word ‘it’. When we work with a client using the Solution Focused approach and the client reports no change how do we know that ‘it’ hasn’t worked? In so saying we are disappearing ourselves out of the statement. We cannot know for sure that ‘it’ didn’t work. All we can know is that my attempt to use the Solution Focused approach in the way that I did at that particular time with the people that I chose to work with did not result in the client reporting change within the time-frame of my contact with the client. Maybe they changed later. Maybe another Solution Focused therapist using the approach, inevitably, differently would have heard the client report change. I often tell the story, which was an important one for me, of working with a 10-year-old, her grand-mother and her auntie, the little girl’s household, since her mother was not around at that time. After three sessions the family were not reporting any evidence of change and at the end of the session I suggested that even though the family had done everything asked of them, and more, yet the sessions seemed to have made no difference. (I would not have wanted the family to feel criticised.) They agreed and so I asked ‘if you are prepared to trust me for one more session could I try something different next time?’. And again the family agreed. Wondering about what to do differently I bumped into a colleague, a Solution Focused, psychologist, who had learned the approach with the BRIEF team and so I asked her whether she would be prepared to lead the next session. She agreed and from the fourth session onwards the family began to report change. So in any one case all we can know is that the way that we used the approach with that client at that particular time led to no reported difference.
So what can we say? 1. The Solution Focused can work in all those situations for which it is designed, namely for bringing about change in the domains of behaviour, feelings and thoughts and these of course encapsulate relationship change. 2. Inevitably the use of the Solution Focused approach is not always followed by reports of success. 3. Further the approach is not designed to get people re-housed (massively significant and important though that is), it is not designed to get people jobs (likewise) or to sort out people’s debts (equally so), although sometimes those issues can, indirectly be addressed with the use either of ‘and what difference would that make?’ or ‘imagine that you woke up tomorrow the version of you who was confidently on your way to . . . (job, re-housing, debts sorted) . . . how would you know?‘.
So are there any circumstances where we, Solution Focused practitioners, might decide that the Solution Focused approach is not appropriate or perhaps is unlikely to make a difference? And I think that there is perhaps one comment that I might make, one situation that would challenge us and that is when the pathway towards the future that the client wants has been ‘fixed’ by the client and does not fit with what we do. Let’s take a simple example.
‘So what are your best hopes from our talking together? How could you know at some point that this had ended being of use to you?’
‘I just need to understand how my life has got into this mess why I always start things and then fail?’
‘OK – and can I ask this – if you were to understand in a way that was useful and made a difference to your life and your living – what difference are you hoping that the understanding would make?’
‘Well I would feel more confident moving forward – I would feel more motivated – I would feel energised believing that change was indeed possible, that I could succeed.’
‘And if you were to end up feeling more confident moving forward, more motivated, energised and believing that change was indeed possible - maybe you had understood maybe you hadn’t – would that be useful, would that be OK for you?’
Most clients at this point might query the shift however after discussion will say something on the lines of ‘well yes – I suppose so’ and then we are in business, we can work together. However if the client says ‘no I really need to understand’ then the only acceptable pathway towards the better future is pre-determined and is as important to the client, perhaps even more so, than the future state assumed to flow from the difference, and the pathway might not fit with our approach.
So when people ask ‘when does it not work?’, my only real answer is ‘on those occasions where for the client the pathway is as important as the outcome and the pathway does not fit the Solution Focused approach’.
Day 11 of Vladimir Putin’s war on the Ukrainian people