Solution Focused Therapy

Pitoncraft: an analogy for staying alongside the client

I have spent some of this week on a training course this week with BRIEF, the world’s leading centre for solution focused practice in therapy, and I couldn’t help but rejoice in a blog about an analogy Evan George used to describe his use of questions that appear to check in with the client. I find analogies incredibly helpful in wrapping my head around abstract concepts. I often use them in my writing, in training workshops I run, and in my consultations with clients. Fortunately it so happens that Evan George often seems to opt for analogous language in his explanations too 

“Why do you ask confirmation questions like ‘So if that happened you would be pleased?’” I asked, as we debriefed one of Evan’s live consultation recordings. (I paraphrase Evan’s answer – hopefully I do it justice).

“It’s like rock climbing,” he replied. 

“We climb: we ask questions, perhaps to best hopes, perhaps to explore a preferred future. And then, every now and again, we check in, we make sure that the client is alongside us, that we are alongside the client. We hammer in a piton, so that we can move forward together, climbing alongside each other, working in unison.”

This analogy was eye opening to me. Generally speaking, I have always steered away from confirmation questions, lest the client suspect I was second guessing their previous answer, or calling them out so to speak. And yet, it makes perfect sense for an approach that is unapologetically co-constructed. 

Checking that are our clients are alongside us not only paces our work, giving our clients time and opportunity to clarify their thoughts and hear their words. Checking that our clients are alongside us ensures that we are indeed climbing the same mountain. 

Psychotherapy, Solution Focused Therapy

NO to aimless positivity, YES to explorative resource talk

In a recent training video, Global Leader in Solution Focused Brief Therapy, Elliott Connie, emphasised the importance of understanding Solution Focused Brief Therapy, not as an approach centred on unbridled, unseeing positivity, but as an exploration of resources.

“This approach is not about being Polly-Anna or seeing the world through Rose-coloured glasses”, says Elliott.

“It’s not even about the client’s strengths,” says Connie, calling out a common misconception about Solution Focused Therapy by other practitioners and by SF practitioners themselves.

“This approach, really, at its core, is about resources.”

According to Elliott, resource talk is something many of us, including himself, take for granted.

And yet, in Solution Focused Therapy, resource talk is absolutely fundamental. We strive for a conversation with the client about their resources that will allow the client to consequently better access, evoke, utilise, draw on and from, their resources to achieve positive change.

“If your client can walk out of the therapy room believing themselves to be more resourceful and being more aware of their resources than their problems then you have gone a long way towards changing their lives for ever,” says Elliott.

Elliott highlights the significance of believing in the resourcefulness of our clients. Every client we work with has accomplished something, achieved something. It is our job to use language, to ask the questions that help them to explore these accomplishments and how they came to be.

“Every accomplishment takes resources to make it happen,” says Elliott.

“Resource talk is simply asking what did you draw upon to help that become a reality?”

The power of these questions, these explorations, into how our clients accomplished whatever they accomplished, can turn the smallest of steps into the largest of leaps forward.

Through these questions, the breadth of each accomplishment and the consequent implications for our clients’ capacity to make positive change happen, are allowed space to to shine out. And in the shining light of their own resources, our clients are better able to experience the strength of their own hope.

To see Elliott Connie’s video on Resource Talk – Why it’s Important click here: https://elliottconnie.com/resource-talk-why-its-important/

Psychotherapy, Solution Focused Therapy

Avoiding presuppositions & opening space: the solution focused approach

Today, I was listening to a Simply Focus podcast recording with world leading SFBT trainer and coach Chris Iveson, and couldn’t help but rejoice in the beautiful simplicity of both the Solution Focused Approach and the way in which the BRIEF Cofounder describes it. 

From his discouragement of designing conversation around a task, to his dislike for presuppositions that lead the client towards an answer, Chris’ dedication to the light touch approach to Solution Focused Therapy is inspiring.

In solution focused therapy, key assumptions that we make of our clients include that they are capable of making positive change, motivated to change, and resourceful. We believe that our clients are these things and this belief inherently changes the way that we communicate with them, in ways that reach far beyond our technique or our use of language. Yet, often these assumptions are interpreted as a basis for presumptive questions that leave little wriggle room in terms of how our client can answer. In our unwavering belief that our clients are capable, motivated and resourceful, we can get carried away and start to use direct language – “What will you notice when you make that change? What will others notice about you?”

There is too much of ourselves in these direct questions, suggests Chris. They are too influential, holding within them what we consider to be most important. We choose on behalf of our clients what they should focus on. 

In contrast, when we step back and open up space in the conversation with questions like “What might you notice? “How could you know that this had been useful?” we open up the possibilities of where our clients can go next in their thinking. 

This lighter touch is no less influential; in fact it is more so as the client is leads the way towards positive change. 

“I want my work to be massively influential” says Chris “I want my clients to walk out of the first session into new lives” so of course what I’m doing is influential, I wouldn’t be doing it if it wasn’t.”

However, the nature of this influence is subtle, indirect, and open. A landscape of possibility rather than a narrow pathway of direction. 

“I want to be asking questions that my client hasn’t heard before that lead them to see the world in a way they haven’t seen before, which means that they can see possibilities that they hadn’t known were there before,” says Chris.  

“Even though the possibilities have always been there,” he adds, situating the client, past, present and future, firmly in the driving seat of their own change.

You can listen here to Chris Iveson on the Simply Focus Podcast – Episode 77, hosted by Elfie Czerny and Dominik Godat.

https://www.sfontour.com/project/sfp-77-its-not-your-life-being-neutral-in-solution-focused-conversations-with-chris-iveson/

Solution Focused Therapy

Balloons of hope: a metaphor for solution focus

Listening to Elliott Connie at a Q&A for the recent Solution Impossible video series with Adam Froerer, I was struck by a metaphor Elliott used for hope.

I find metaphors can be really helpful when wrapping my head around a concept and this one was no exception.

Adam and Elliott spoke about the importance of presupposing the existence of hope in our clients, even when they tell us with their words that they have none. If, said Elliott, we listen to the person, rather than their words, we’ll find it a lot easier to see this hope. After all, the client is there, in our office or on our computer screen, and that alone represents hope.

So what if the client is forced to be there? What if they are required to be there by social services or by the terms of their probation? These situations do not negate hope. Perhaps our client hopes that they can reduce a custodial sentence as a result of attending the session. Perhaps our client hopes that they will gain or maintain access to their child as a result of attending the session. Hope is still very much present, and as Elliott points out, the client can hope for whatever they like. As solution focused therapists we don’t judge. It’s our job to use their hope to help structure the rest of the conversation in a way that can bring about positive change

“Think about hope as a series of helium balloons attached to a person,” said Elliott.

“If I put enough helium in one of the balloons it pulls the entire person up. So it doesn’t matter which balloon I put the helium in.”

I love this idea.

I love the idea of imagining each client with these balloons of hope.

I love the idea that it is my role to ask questions to help the client find a balloon that they can use to pull themselves up.

I love the idea that it is my role to then ask questions to help the client to fill up this balloon with helium so that it lifts them up, up, towards wherever it is they want to go.

Thank you Elliott Connie and Adam Froerer for yet another inspiring course.

To find out more about this video series and others, visit https://www.mastersolutionfocusedbrieftherapy.com/

Psychotherapy, Solution Focused Therapy

Starting with an outcome – the solution focused approach to therapy

Listening back to old recordings from a training course I attended with Brief International, I couldn’t help but share the words of Evan George, who beautifully summarises the client-led, non-judgmental foundations of Solution Focused Brief Therapy.

“We have no view on what people should want,” says George.

“We have no view on how people should live their lives.

“We have absolutely no view as a result of that, on the content of what people should be talking about.”

George quotes another global leader in Solution Focused Brief Therapy, Harry Korman, who concludes that, “Until you know what the client wants, you have no questions to ask.”

As solution focused therapists we make no presumptions about what the client should want, how they should think and behave. We don’t view ourselves as expert of the client’s problem or the client’s life. We don’t aim to diagnose problems or prescribe expert solutions. This means we don’t need to know lots of information about the client’s problem. In fact we don’t need any information about the problem at all.

As solution focused therapists we consider ourselves experts of the solution focused conversation only. We know a bit more than most (hopefully) about how to structure a productive conversation that will support the client towards recognising and drawing on their own strengths and resources to get them towards their intended outcome. Therefore the only information we really need in order to proceed is the client’s intended outcome. What are their best hopes from our talking together?

Psychotherapy, Solution Focused Therapy

Beyond the solution

In his award winning book Atomic Habits, bestselling author James Clear describes three layers of behaviour change. 1) Outcomes, or goals, such as losing weight, winning a competition, securing a promotion. 2) Processes, or habits and systems, such as getting up earlier, eating fruit for breakfast, writing a journal. And 3) Identity, or beliefs and judgements about yourself, others and the wider world.

When we try to build up outcome-based habits, we focus on what we want to achieve. I want to be thinner. I want to quit smoking. In contrast, when we focus on identity-based habits, we focus on who we wish to become. I believe that I am a non-smoker, I believe that I can lose weight.

Focus on outcome-based habits only at your peril, warns Clear, because unless you shift how you look at yourself, your old sense of identity will sabotage the best of intentions.

There is a common misunderstanding about Solution Focused Therapy, largely borne out of the unfortunate name, Solution focused, that the focus of change is solely on the outcome, not on processes and not on identity. This is simply not true.

Whilst we may start the first session with a client by establishing a preferred outcome, asking “What are your best hopes?”, our work with clients does not end there. Understanding what our client hopes for is, rather, a starting point, because, as the Global Leaders in Solution Focused Therapy teach, if you don’t know where your client wants to get to, you can’t begin to be able to support them to get there.

In the early days of Solution Focused Brief Therapy, much more airtime was given to goals, defining them and working towards them. These days, many of the big names in SFBT shudder at the use of the term “goals”, and steer well clear of tying a client to any goal they might mention.

The goals themselves are less important. Best hopes established, the questions we then ask support our clients to focus on describing the life in which those best hopes exist. In a sense, we ask our clients to pick out the detail of the atomic habits, the systems and processes that form a part of their preferred future.

Other questions we ask support our clients to explore how progress they have already made towards their goals impacts their sense of identity. What have they learned? What did it take to get themselves to that point? How does the way in which they have coped change what they believe about themselves?

So, contrary to what the name suggests, Solution Focused Therapy reaches far beyond the solution to the bigger picture beyond. We ask questions so that our client can shade in the parts of that picture that already exist and we ask questions so that our clients can sketch out the details in which the solution resides.

Psychotherapy, Solution Focused Therapy

You lead the way

In the Solution Focused approach, the client takes the lead. Each session is shaped by what the client brings to it, their hopes, their strengths, their focus, their ideas. The client chooses  what they would like to achieve and how they would like to achieve it. The more a client takes ownership of their progress, the better we have done our job. 

Expressing how then, as solution focused therapists, we can help guide the client along this process of positive change, is tricky. Guiding seems to suggest leading. So how do we guide while following? The answer ‘we ask questions’, is too vague a statement to really convey the essence of the solution focused therapist. 

In a recent lecture, Solution Focused Brief Therapist Adam Froerer provided a metaphor that captures perfectly the essence of solution focused therapy. 

We stand in a room shoulder to shoulder with the client

The room is pitch black.

The client holds the only source of light – a torch.

They shine the light where they choose.

We ask the client what they can see.

The client answers: “A wall”

“What does the wall look like?” we ask?

“Is it coming from the right or the left?”

“How tall is it?”

Our questions help the client to move the torch, to adjust their focus and get clarity on their thoughts. Clarity that can inform their next step forward. Clarity that had been otherwise sat undiscovered, hidden by the dark. 

Psychotherapy, Solution Focused Therapy

The most important assumption a solution focused therapist makes…

One of the fundamental differences that holds Solution Focused Brief Therapy apart from many other psychotherapeutic approaches, is a basic assumption that we, as therapists, make.

We assume that our client is there, not because they have a problem, but because they want to find a solution.

We make this assumption of all of our clients, regardless of what brings them to us. For the purposes of our work together, it doesn’t matter if the person sitting across from us is mourning the loss of a loved one, coming to terms with a terminal diagnosis, or hasn’t slept a full night in years. Global Leader in Solution Focused Brief Therapy, Elliott Connie, often refers to entire sessions he has with clients without ever knowing a whisper of the problem that ails them.

This may sound like we don’t have patience for our client’s problems. We absolutely do. We sit and listen to our clients tell us about their problems (if they wish to – not everyone does!) because we trust that they know their talking about their problems is a necessary part of their journey towards the solution.

So we are interested in the problem (to the extent our client is anyway). It’s simply that we are particularly interested in a specific dimension of the problem: how our client has managed to cope with it? What strategies has our client come up with to get through it? What resources have they noticed that have helped them along the way?

The very fact that they are sitting across from us is in itself a strength that warrants exploration. How did they recognise that they wanted to find a solution and that this might help? How did they manage to turn up for the appointment at all?

Session time is precious and short, and so we choose to spend it exploring our client’s strengths and resources. Not only does this support our clients to open up doors in their thinking in session; the priority that we give to exploring strengths and resources over problems also opens up for the client a whole new approach to thinking, in which their strengths are in the spotlight. Rediscovered, reinforced, acknowledged, celebrated.

Mindfulness, Solution Focused Therapy

Defining ourselves in a pandemic

Living in a pandemic can become all-consuming. So much so that we can start to lose our sense of self. Our days become punctuated by news briefings, our conversations are dominated by a swirling mass of assertions, predictions, disputes and commentary, spinning around the abuse of an uncertain future. R numbers, death tolls, new cases. We study these numbers for clues as to what happens next. It’s all very…defining.

We are defined by our level of risk, our postcode, our age, our medical history, our experience of tragedy, our role in lessening the pandemic, or managing its many consequences. We are defined by what we have lost or given up. The helpers and the helped.

And yet, even as we find ourselves gathered into categories as we attempt to organise ourselves out of a growing hole, there is still choice. We can choose how to respond. We can choose to search for what we can feel grateful for, and what we can find meaning in.

Perhaps it’s a greater sense of community we feel with our colleagues and neighbours. Perhaps it’s an appreciation for what we still have. Perhaps it’s a realisation of an inner strength we never realised we had.

Within our choice lies a solution focused opportunity to define ourselves by our gratitude and purpose. Our resources and our strengths on which challenge and adversity has shone a light.

So how have you managed? How have you coped?

Mindfulness, Psychotherapy, Solution Focused Therapy

The power of choice

As the majority of the UK picks its way through yet another lockdown, shuffling past a Christmas that many would rather forget, the wise words of psychologist, best-selling author and Holocaust survivor Dr Edith Eger may offer some solace against the stubborn backdrop of uncertainty.

“The most damaging prison is in our mind, and the key is in our pocket.”

In her #1 New York Times bestselling book “The Choice”, and “The Gift” Eger recounts her journey from imprisonment at Auschwitz to liberation and then on towards her own mental freedom. In spite of the horror she and millions of others suffered, Edith nonetheless describes our minds as our biggest prisons, to which we already hold the key. It is liberation from our own negative, self-destructive incapacitating thoughts that brings us true freedom:

“When we escape our mental prisons, we not only become free from what has held us back, but free to exercise our own free will.”

We have the power of choice, and we can choose freedom, writes Eger. We can choose how we look upon what has happened to us. We can choose how we will respond. 

We can focus on the usefulness of our experiences. How have they been helpful to us? How have they nourished us? In the solution focused approach, we encourage our clients to focus on the nuggets of usefulness from their everyday experiences, with questions such as ‘What’s been better?’

And, writes Eger, if there is no such usefulness to be found when we look out, we can look within. In the solution focused approach, we encourage our clients to do so with questions such as ‘Given what you have been through, how have you manage to cope?’ ‘What strengths have you drawn on to keep going?’

As Eger points out, “It’s not what happens to us that matters most, it’s what we do with our experiences.”

When we are deep, deep down; our neurochemistry flatlined, the top – where all the mental freedom and inner peace hangs out – can seem a long way up. 

Likewise, when we are flying so high, so fast, too fast to think; too busy to check-in with ourselves – cortisol and adrenalin fuelling our way forward and blocking out everything (and everyone) else – inner peace and mental freedom might as well reside on another planet.

And yet, there is always choice. We can choose to look up, to stop, to breathe, to make a cup of tea, to practice gratitude, and to remember how strong we really are.

Eger, E. (2018). The Choice. Penguin Books

Eger, E. (2020). The Gift. Penguin Books