The SF approach itself
Applying SF in practice
SF in relation to other approaches
The SF approach itself
Problem solving conversations tend to limit possibilities. Solution building conversations tend to expand options. The Solutions Focus invites participants into a realm of possibilities. Working on a problem is often narrowing, working on a solution expansive. You still get your problems solved, but perhaps through a different perspective.
Talking about solutions is usually more useful than focusing on problems. On the other hand, if someone wants an analysis or exploration of problems, then that may be precisely what it takes to deal with that situation. If you can find useful differences by examining the problem, that is fine. The crux is always what works in any particular case.
While The Solutions Focus is certainly future-oriented and many of the techniques deal with the here and now, the past too has an important part to play.
In other approaches, the past is where you tend to look for explanations in order to understand the problem, and perhaps allocate blame. For solutionists, the past is rich territory in which to mine for counters, resources, exceptions and evidence of previous and related successes, making use of what's there.
The past is just as open to construction as the future. You can choose whether to sift through lost opportunities, poor choices and terrible outcomes; or recall chances taken, wise decisions and fruitful results. The question 'How did you do that?' - asked admiringly of any progress, invites reflection on the history of that helpful change.
Offering advice is rarely the first port of call, but remember we are interested in whatever works. There may be cases where advice is asked for - and requested advice is more likely to be welcome than unasked-for advice. 'Teachable moments' crop up, when our clients display interest in finding information: these are good moments to respond.
And there may also be cases where a simple advisory tip is precisely what is needed. "If you are looking for these components, then I know that this shop supplies them at a good price." Or "If it's presentation skills that will make the difference, then I can recommend this company's course".
As vetern SF user and author Brian Cade puts it, (SFT List 26 Aug 1998), "'The client is expert' is a tactical position... to create a relationship that maximises client competence, not a statement of fact." And to take that position when it is clearly not working is an error. "Why can the client not be an expert in deciding when they want expert advice from us and then make their own mind up about whether or not it might be something they want to follow."
One of the disciplines of a solution-focused approach is to favour the clients' descriptions over the consultants'. The aim is to collaborate in co-constructing a future that will improve matters for the manager or the organisation. A solutions focused consultant will bring skills to find - and stay focused - on solutions, as well as a credible presence and process. The importance of credibility in the process has been confirmed by much research.
While what the consultant knows or does not know about that manager's or organisation's circumstances is not a central issue, that knowledge will have some bearing on how the consultant participates in the conversation. Any useful knowledge or offerings may have their place.
Either when there is no problem or no customer for change.
There is no problem unless someone is:
* doing something they don't want to do
There does need to be something to work on, and someone willing to work on it for solution-focused tools to begin to cut. We are often asked whether there are certain types of problem for which SF is not useful. Two points here: firstly all the research about SF in therapy and now in organizational work shows it to be effective quickly (within a few session) in 60%-80% of cases, but with no prior indication about effectiveness. It is therefore a highly sensible first line of attack, and if it's not working you can try something else. Secondly, remember the whole idea is that problem and solution are not related, so looking at the type of problem might be expected not to be fruitful anyway.
Not at all. Innovating is often important for business. Doing things differently can have great results. We are suggesting, however, that on the occasions you get stuck, a good place to look for inspiration is to the skills, resources, successes and patterns you already know about and/or have used to good effect. You may quickly find ways forward and new takes on past events.
No. If the disgruntled want things to be different in some way, a solutions focus will help. Mere disgruntlement, however, is usually singularly ineffective in bringing about change. If people have been disgruntled for some time, we invite them to consider what's working and what isn't, as well as affirming useful qualities and attributes.
Sometimes people acting disgruntled are pleased to know that making progress need not involve stopping acting disgruntled. However, it often involves doing something else as well.
'Doing what worked' in a case simply on the basis of experience is not using SF. It is, however, our main strategy for getting on with life, and is to be commended highly! SF comes into play when this conventional strategy breaks down - someone has a persistent difficulty, and their normal strategies don't work. SF is about then investigating what works in this particular situation.
This specifically contextual investigation is a key part of the SF approach. We certainly do not claim that anything 'works' all the time, even SF! And to claim that 'this works, therefore my using it is Solutions Focused' is to be playing a very different game altogether.
Incidentally, this is why SF cannot be a 'way of life', as is claimed for some other approaches. To examine every situation anew, down to making coffee for breakfast every morning, would be tedious and unnatural in the extreme.
We are sometimes asked how an approach which looks so simple can possibly tackle complex problems without aiming to "understand" them in detail. Without understanding the 'real problem', we cannot tackle the 'real issue', it is said.
This is precisely the revelation of the SF approach. The 'solution' on which the focus is placed is not 'the thing to be done', but rather 'the difference that is sought'. You don't need to understand the problem in detail, you need to understand what it is that people want and where it is happening already. The SF approach clearly challenges the assumption that problem state and solution state are related.
However, the level of detail involved in investigating what is sought and therefore what is working can be forensic. There is a great deal of understanding and investigating to be done - of the solution, not of the problem, therefore my using it is Solutions Focused' is to be playing a very different game altogether.
SF practitioners listen carefully to what our clients have to say. We listen very purposefully. Early on in the relationship, we are engaged in "platform building" - establishing what the client wants and whether they themselves are willing to do something about it. What the client wants may not be the same as what other people in their lives think they want, be they friends and family in the therapy context or managers, colleagues and subordinates in the work context.
We are not problem phobic and we do let clients talk about their problems. And while they are doing that, we are listening. We listen for clues about what they want, for signs of what they want happening already - or at least some of it, some of the time - and for evidence in their story of resources, skills and attitudes which will be helpful to them. We also listen for signs that they are ready to move on in the conversation, confident that their problem story has been heard.
In itself, this purposeful listening is a very effective way to achieve rapport and empathy. Our non-expert tenet is that every client and situation is different. This demands that we listen to find out what we can about our client "not knowing". Far from devaluing the client, our stance puts him or her back where they ought to be - expert in their own lives and situations.
This follows nicely from the misunderstanding above. We believe that clients are best able to decide the pace of the conversation - what they are willing to tell us and when it is appropriate to do so. By respecting this, not forcing the pace and accepting what we are told, we gain clients' trust and willingness to let us know what is important to them.
SF practitioners are less likely to meet "resistant" or "difficult" clients precisely because we take them at face value and respect what they say. And gentle SF questions like "Is there anything that I have forgotten to ask?" or "Is there anything else that you think I should know?" can relieve us of any nagging worries that there may be something important as yet unsaid! It may be useful in this situation to remember Bill O'Hanlon's advice - "When I feel a hypothesis coming on, I go and lie down for a while until it goes away."
Positive thinking - "Don't focus on the bad things at all, always look on the bright side." - seems to us to be very different from SF. The approach is often characterized as positive, yet it doesn't have to be - it's about finding what works, often in very dire circumstances. At very difficult and stressful times, simply being told to 'look on the bright side' is likely to be seen as flippant and demeaning by our clients.
We are looking at what works in dire conditions and at enlarging it. SF is not about wanting to make the client think that there life better than it really is to them. Rather, it is about changing this life by identifying what will work under these circumstances, not glossing over the difficulties. We do this first by finding out about what is wanted and what is already working. And if nothing is working, then we start doing something different.
Also, thinking on its own is useful, but seldom sufficient. Taking an interactional view, differences are made in the world by action and interaction - sometimes as a result of thinking, other times by happenstance or sheer good fortune.
The SF approach, like its predecessor the Interactional View, was developed originally in the USA. Steve de Shazer, however, is of German descent while Insoo Kim Berg has Korean roots. One of the things which has struck us is that way in which Asians (Japanese, Koreans, Chinese) have taken up this approach in management not simply because of its effectiveness, but also because they see their own cultural alignments - saving face, making people look good, being respectful, not focusing on assigning blame.
Applying SF in practice
Solution Focus is often taught by giving students the experience of posing a set of solution focused questions and seeing what these questions and the answers to them can do in a conversation about change. A lot of textbooks on solution focus like "Interviewing for Solutions" by Insoo Kim Berg and Peter DeJong and others also might seem to suggest that solution focus is "merely" about following a rather formulaic set of questions.
While it is a good idea to learn about this approach by following sets of questions, you will notice with experience and when looking at live demonstrations or tapes (for example the ones available at www.brief-therapy.org) that it does end up as a conversation. This means that the next question always depends on the previous answer. Steve de Shazer is often quoted as saying "I only know what question I asked when I hear the answer that I get." Therefore, a solution focused conversation is very emergent and has much more in common with improvisation than with following a fixed format.
The solution focused emphasis on really listening to the client (which you must do if you presuppose that you only know what you asked when you hear the answer to your question) is in stark contrast to other approaches which require the practitioner to diagnose or put the situation or client into a theoretical framework in order to know which intervention is appropriate in the given situation.
Solutions Focus is about listening to what the client says, reacting, and strengthening of what already works - not about merely following a formulaic set of questions.
When you compare solution focused conversations with other forms of coaching or therapy, it may seem like solution focus only addresses the "symptoms" and is therefore very superficial. And indeed, sometimes it may seem as though we ignore the symptoms and the problem altogether!
As in the above example, we are concentrating on what is said in the room, we listen carefully for any information that could help the client reach or maintain a solution state. As mentioned above, this also means that we do not do other things that one might associate with "thorough coaching" or "deep therapy", such as diagnosing, classifying according to a theoretical framework, uncovering the "real" causes of the neuroses/problems or "letting our feelings out" as dramatically as possible. We simply don't believe that any one "cause" can be found in the multiparameter complex system that a human being is or lives in, and therefore, we are not looking for it.
You will generally find less talk about "symptoms" in a solution focused conversation than in many other kinds of helping conversations. Of course, if the client needs to talk about what is wrong, we listen carefully: Insoo Kim Berg tells a story about an old lady who came because of a depression. She continued talking about what is wrong with her life long in to the second hour of the treatment. Getting a bit restless, Insoo asked her how long she would need to talk about the problem. The old lady said: "Probably 3 more hours". She did just that and in the end, Insoo and the old lady moved on to talk about what she wanted instead of her life of depression. During the previous hours, Insoo had established a good relationship, had listened for resources and they were able to find signs of the looming solution rather easily.
Solutions Focus has been proven to be effective with problems like schizophrenia, borderline personality disorder, acquired brain injury, substance abuse, and learning disabilities. Solutions Focus works in many very difficult cases and outcome research shows it has sustainable success in 70% or more of the cases in 3-5 sessions.
In therapy, there is the very fuzzy line between psychological and physiological illnesses. This distinction is also useful for us in so far as if a problem is not interactional but more "medical/mechanical" in nature, other approaches, like medication, might be more useful. In any case, a solution focused therapy would be one of the fastest therapies to realize that the therapy is not working since we adhere to the tenet: "If something doesn't work, do something different".
In Ben Furman's book "KidsSkills", you will find a story about a boy, who had the bad habit of eating threads from his garments and destroying them this way. Ben's solution focused program helped the boy reduce his consumption significantly, but the problem was not solved - a later medical check-up revealed that the boy was suffering from a severe case of anemia, and he was cured from the anemia and his bad habit by an iron supplement therapy. Solution focused coaching or therapy does not stop until the problem is sufficiently better for the client.
Emotions cannot be placed carefully onto a specimen dish and studied through a special instrument like a microscope. They cannot be stored in the deep freeze or pickled in brine, to be brought out of storage and examined later. Emotions are activities - anger, love, grief, jealousy etc are things that we do in particular contexts. They are an intrinsic part of an experience and cannot be separated from it. Emotional experiences are not private, internal events - they manifest themselves in given contexts. Nor do we think that these activities can be usefully generalised - at least not in stuck situations: it's different for poets!
Hence we do not find it useful to initiate talk about emotions. To talk about emotions is to take them out of context and to turn them into abstractions. This strips the stuck situation of much useful data - the interactional context. The client has experienced emotion in a particular context; but it is not necessary to revive that emotion in order to change it.
It seems to us that in many other disciplines, talking about emotions is a goal in itself. We do not share this view.
When applied in coaching, Solutions Focus is sometimes accused of not stretching the staff or of failing to help the employee realize how bad his or her performance is on the job.
We do not think that an employee necessarily needs to see what a bad job he or she is doing in order to improve. The traditional process of: sin - remorse - insight - improvement is less useful than a solution focused process like: problem - signs of solution - future perfect - first small step. One key element here is that the motivation of the employee to change is kept up rather than destroyed: being happy about improving your performance feels different from feeling the threat of being fired.
Additionally, it is the task of a good manager to select the right people for the task at hand and engage them in the things they are interested in, so that both the organisation and the individual employee pursue the same goals. As a manager, you then set and agree on the standards and help your staff fulfill them, preferably by coaching them in a solution focused way.
In summary, it is very useful to ask "who is a customer for what" when looking at how challenging therapy or coaching should be. In solution focused therapy, we go as far as the client wants to go and do not assume that he or she should be anywhere else than where he or she wants to be. In management, you have dual roles: manager/leader and coach, and therefore you might sometimes need to stretch your employees more than they would stretch themselves. The difference here is how you accomplish it. In this case, you as manager are the customer for stretching.
One guess is that it breaks the links between problem-talk and solution-talk, by inviting the client to talk about a preferred future, irrespective of the current problem. It also invites definition of the first small signs of the preferred future, which may offer a ray of hope in a previously dark outlook.
Some people achieve a better sense of their preferred future if they go beyond talk, into a visualisation. You can encourage them to relax, close their eyes and imagine all the details of themselves or their organisations succeeding, as they mentally walk through the scenario they are creating.
It is vital to ensure that the customer for change is also a customer for a technique such as visualisation, or you face the danger reported by comedian Emo Philips who said, 'I tried day-dreaming but my mind kept wandering'.
Visualisation is often a novelty for a business group, and can generate a sense of possibility and excitement beyond words alone. Other options include acting out scenarios, drawing pictures of preferred futures or simple discussion.
One of the reasons scaling appears so effective lies in the implications which you accept as soon as you start working with a scale. Even if these are not always implications in the fullest logical sense, there is certainly a strong suggestion of these useful suppositions at work.
It implies that there is a 10 - and that the 10 may therefore be achievable. On the way, it is suggested, there are steps up - and if there are such steps then they may be taken.
One easy way to make it much harder to apply a solutions focus with others is to force it on them. Remember our assumption about people being experts in themselves? A good time to apply a solutions focus is when people are ready to talk about solutions. When they are not, you might observe well-meaning managers or consultants beating them over the head with 'solution focused' questions.
Try offering yourself a solutions focused checkout when things fail to turn out the way you'd hoped, or you start finding 'resistance' around you. If being overt is not working, try covert. If being positive is not working, be as negative as you can for a while.
'Resistance' is one of the most exciting challenges, and it is easier to meet it away from the 'resistant' scene than on the spot. Time to reflect, and maybe talk it over with a solutions focused colleague, can be a great help.
Remember: Solution focused, not solution forced.
There are different types of 'not working'. One sort, which should set the alarm bells ringing, is if the customer for change expresses unease about the process. If they say 'I don't want to be here' or 'I'd rather not be discussing that', then it is time to change tack.
By contrast, silence or long pauses, or comments such as 'Now that's a tricky question' or 'I don't know' are responses indicative of productive thinking. In these instances, wait - it may well be working.
Within The Solutions Focus, you don't ask about what isn't working. Customers take action and note what happens. The consultant asks 'what's better?' or 'What seems to be working?' It may be an accident, it may be a consequence, but we notice what works anyway. Action is always in a spirit of discovery, not to test ideas to destruction with the conclusion that 'It didn't work'.
The principle of "Stop Doing What Doesn't Work And Do Something Different" applies to everything we say here. Do be aware, however, that maintaining a solutions focus often takes skill and practice. The ideas presented here have worked for thousands of people around the world in many different contexts, so they are worth persisting with while you get accustomed to using them when you need to.
SF in relation to other approaches
Solution focus arose as an approach to therapeutic change, and has roots in a number of fields. In common with many current approaches to consultancy and facilitation, it takes a systems-based view of the world, where loops and feedback effects drive complex phenomena.
The Solutions Focus is based on post-modern thought, specifically constructivism (sometimes confusingly knows as contructionism), of which there are several versions. Kelly's 'personal construction' psychology from the 1950s holds that each individual builds the world through their own interpretations and reactions. Other versions include Gergen and Shotter's social constructionism, where our understanding of the world is built up through interactions and conversations with others, and radical constructivism (Watzlawick, 1984) where the whole world is constructed in our heads as a result of our own limited sensory experience.
The Solutions Focus is indebted to Solution Focused Brief Therapy (SFBT). SFBT was started in the mid-1980s by a number of therapists, including Steve de Shazer and Insoo Kim Berg (of the Brief Family Therapy Centre, Milwaukee). Bill O'Hanlon and Brian Cade were also pioneers in the SFBT field. They were therapists in the tradition of Milton Erickson, who took Erickson's principles and sought to extend and test them by practice.
They were also influenced by the Mental Research Institute (MRI), Palo Alto, where Don Jackson, John Weakland, Paul Watzlawick and Dick Fisch had been taking an interactional view of families and other human systems since the late 1950s. MRI had links with Erickson and also with Gregory Bateson. The echoes of these great thinkers can be seen in SFBT as currently practised and taught.
Steve de Shazer has been developing his ideas about language and the way words work, often drawing on the writings of Ludwig Wittgenstein. The story of Solutions Focus is told in detail in Chapter 15 of our book.
Dr Milton Erickson was a pioneering doctor and therapist who worked in the USA between the 1950s and his death in the 1980s. Erickson's genius as an agent of change in his clients has long been recognised. While many have studied his unique ways of working, few have succeeded in distilling his methods.
Amongst earlier students of Erickson's work were Englishman Gregory Bateson and the team at the Mental Research Institute in Palo Alto, California, who set about devising a way of looking at and changing human systems - starting with the family unit. Bateson is noted nowadays as the 'grandfather of NLP' - he interested John Grinder and Richard Bandler in 'what makes the difference between an excellent performer and an average one?'.
Grinder and Bandler went on to observe various performers, initially in the psychotherapy field, and developed the ideas of neuro-linguistic programming (NLP).
NLP is now widely known as an approach to therapy and personal development. Bandler and Grinder made another attempt to distil Erickson's genius, examined a number of cases, and came away with some interesting thoughts about language.
Of Milton Erickson's case studies, Steve de Shazer told us, 'However you categorise those cases, whatever you try to look for as the key thing, there's always a big pile marked 'Others' which don't fit your categories... so you try again and again, and the same thing happens!'.
SF and NLP share some common ancestors - particularly Gregory Bateson, who founded the MRI team which included John Weakland and Don Jackson, and Milton Erickson, a friend and collaborator of the Bateson group. It is not surprising, therefore, that the approaches seem to have something in common.
However, the endeavours of the two fields seem to us to be very different. NLP seeks to help people model excellence in others and apply it to themselves. SF seeks to find ways forward in difficult situations, by finding what works and doing more of it - initially by search for what is already working for that person in that situation, rather than looking at other 'excellent' performers. It could be said that we help clients model their own excellence and not other people's excellence.
Other differences seem important too. NLP is based (at the outset of the first book by Richard Bandler and John Grinder, The Structure Of Magic) on a structuralist view of language - there is a code to be broken by examining what people say. This has led over the years to a plethora of patterns, techniques and structures to identify the underlying explanations of people's language. SF, on the other hand, has parallels in post-structural linguistics, where what people's words are tools they use to get things done in everyday mundane interactions with others. People's words are the basis for negotiation, not a code to be broken. We try to keep our practice as simple as possible and try to look at the case in front of us and not at the ceiling of our theories.
Appreciative Inquiry was devised by David Cooperider and colleagues as a large scale organisational development methodology. SF and AI are similar in several ways - both are interested in finding what works, and both are in use in a variety of fields. Both stem from social constructionist philosophies.
SF and AI come from different backgrounds - SF from a therapy/families/social work background, and AI from an organisational development background. AI is most often associated with large scale organisational projects, (but this is changing), and SF has so far been most often associated with working with individuals and small groups (though this is also changing).
There are clearly many similarities between the approaches. In ouru view there are also some differences which cannot be ignored - the two are not simply 'the same'. For a full comparison, check out the joint SF/Ai paper on both our website and the Ai Commons website.
(Parts of this FAQ are based on toe forthcoming article 'Misunderstandings about Solutions Focus' by Mark McKergow, Jenny Clarke and Kirsten Dierolf.)
London Bateson Salon - Mind
Join Nora Bateson and Mark McKergow for a day exploring Gregory Bateson's thinking on Mind - in the complex interactions of Trafalgar Square! More at http://norabateson.eventbrite.com/
UKASFP conference 2013
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SFCT Research Conference
The first SFCT research conference, in association with the University of Hertfordshire. Researchers and academics from around hte world on SF, enactive and narrative work. More...
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