Solution Focused Practice is in many ways anti-intuitive; of course the approach is simple, we all know that, and yet it is not easy to grasp probably because the approach thinks, if an inanimate entity can be said to think, in an unusual way. Many, if not most of us, have been inducted into a taken-for-granted, obvious, unquestioned way of solving problems. The first step is to identify the problem. We then attempt to figure out what is causing this problem and only at this point do we start to think ‘so given that we now know the cause - what is the solution?’. Having figured out what the solution is we then plan, ‘action plan’, how we are going to implement the solution, specifying the what and the when and the who of the solution. Within this ‘problem-solving’ framework the question ‘how will you move yourself up the scale?’ makes absolute sense. Clearly within this way of thinking we need to decide what we are going to do before we do it. And, it is important to say, and this must be acknowledged, that this approach might well and often does work.
However there are possible disadvantages to working this way.
1. The client may not be able to answer the question. After all people come to us, most often, when they are stuck and whilst they may be able to describe in detail the life that they are wanting to live, the life that contains their ‘best hopes’, they may have no idea how to get there. And so as we ask ‘how’ with increasing urgency the client is thrown back into their hopelessness. ‘I don’t know’ they repeat with increasing irritation, sometimes adding ‘if I knew the answer to that question I wouldn’t be here’. Our question ‘how’ can truly appear stupid to some clients.
2. ‘Prospective strategy questions’, how are you going to do it in other words, limit people’s possibilities. If we focus people on the ‘how’ people begin one way or another to develop a plan and then between sessions they may be focusing on what have they have decided to do and (perhaps) doing it. Of course one risk is that the action that they have decided upon may not turn out to fit life as they discover it to be outside the session and thus the plan does not fit their life and context. Equally new issues may arise of which the ‘plan’ did not take account. The ideas that people have in sessions do not always fit life outside the session.
3. And if people do not ‘do’ the plan there is the additional risk that they will not notice what they do find themselves doing that is useful, the spontaneous, unplanned, but happened upon, ‘solutions’. We tend to notice what we are looking for and if we are noticing that we have not gone to the college to find out about courses, after all the client has said that he should do this, then he might not notice the fact that he got himself out of the house more often, something that can be difficult for him. Failing to notice the steps taken may lead the client into the mistaken view that the client is doing nothing useful thus exacerbating he sense of failure.
4. If the client has said that they will do something then there is also the risk that the worker will begin to have the idea that the client should do this. If a worker thinks that the client should do something and the client does not do it, then the worker may begin to have critical thoughts or questions about the client ‘perhaps this is an unmotivated client?’ or maybe the client is ‘resistant’ or does not want to change. None of these thoughts will help the worker to be of use to the client, indeed they will be active impediments.
So there are clear and obvious risks in asking the ‘how’ questions but in addition we have to ask ourselves are these questions necessary and most SF practitioners would take the view that they are not. SF has developed on the basis of two key ideas:
1. What is the least that we need to do?
2. What is the simplest model that we can develop?
So in SF we have arrived at an approach that in essence only asks change questions; prospectively we ask about how people will know that change is happening, evidential questions, and retrospectively we ask about changes that the client has made and how they have done that, in other words we only ask strategy questions retrospectively.
Solution Focused Retrospective Analysis as Rebekka Ouer describes it (see the BRIEF FB blog dated 24th March 2019) , ‘how did you do that?’ has the advantage of invariably complimenting the client since we only ask these questions when the client reports having done something that is in line with their ‘best hopes’ and even if they say ‘I don’t know’ the effect seems to be less destructive than when the client answers that they do not know what to do to move forward.
Thus we ask the client to describe their ‘best hopes’, then in detail to describe the life that contains those best hopes and then to watch out for anything that is taking their life in the referred direction. The ‘anything’ increases the chances that the client will be able to notice something between sessions and that then we can ask ‘how did you do that?’. We could perhaps suggest that SFBT rather than indulging in ‘action-planning’ invites people into ‘in-the-moment-planning’ and it is this ‘in-the-moment’ aspect that increases the client’s flexibility outside the session, that increases the range of possibilities to fit the discovered reality of life outside the session.
Of course this is not easy for the worker. It is easier for the worker to ‘pin the client down’. To work in this SF way with people we have to ‘trust’ them and trusting is really difficult to do. In SF we assume that the client will do something useful between sessions but we have no idea what that something will be and in what area of the client’s life that something will turn up.
26th May 2019
*This question was posed by James on the BRIEF International Online Certificate Course Thank-you James for provoking me to answer.