Solution-Focus, simplicity is thy name!


What is so special about Solution-Focused approaches to therapy, coaching and consulting?

As Mark McKergow pointed out in a recent posting in the SOL listserv:

SF is a lot SIMPLER than other practices

Interesting questions then follow; according to Mark:

*  How is it that this works as well as all the other things?
*  Why, then, are people still learning the other (more complicated) things?
*  What is going on here that we can extend and experiment with?

And here is Mark’s punchline:

1) The special things in SF are basically present in other things too.

2) The other things have lots of extra things that make no difference, or even make things worse.

I totally agree with Mark.
The beauty of Solution-Focused practice is its simplicity and elegance.

As Antoine de Saint-Exupery said:
Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add,
but when there is nothing left to take away.

Effective Leadership


In the picture: Jack leading the survivors of Oceanic flight 815 in the TV Show Lost

Clients often attend my workshops on leadership because they want to learn how to “become effective leaders”.
But what makes a leader effective?

A good answer to that question is the leadership style known as “transformational leadership“.

“The organizational effectiveness of transformational leadership is not in question. Studies routinely demonstrate its effectiveness in diverse situations, ranging from profit-oriented organizations, trade unions, young workers, sports team, educational contexts, self-managed teams, to military organization” – Sivanathan N., Arnold K.A., Turner N., Barling J. in Leading Well: Transformational Leadership and Well-Being.

According to the Transformational Leadership line of research and intervention, an effective leader needs to act in a way that exerts:

Idealized Influence: when leaders choose to do what is right rather than what is expedient
Inspirational Motivation: when leaders inspire their followers to be their very best and to perform at a new level
Intellectual Stimulation: when leaders challenge their followers to think for themselves
Individualized Consideration: when leaders show concern for their followers, by listening, caring, empathizing and being compassionate.

Transformational Leadership is what I teach in my Leadership Programs and how to enact those 4 types of behaviors is what my clients learn in the workshop I lead.

Distinction: Solution-Focused Coaching vs. “being positive”


SF therapy and coaching as I understand it is much closer to the business culture than to the lovebombing, positive thinking culture. When SF coaches give “compliments” at the end of a session, they are not complimenting anything that comes to mind. They don’t generally appreciate clients in an overdone way – they comment on what they think will increase their clients confidence that they will reach their goals. It is not even about what the coach believes: it is about stating what the client said about him- or herself in his or her own words. – Kirsten Dierolf

A while ago, a client, in response to my question: “what is better, now?“, looked at me knowingly and said: “oh, the glass half full as opposed to the glass half empy, uh?

I knew right there and then that somewhere along the line I made a mistake.

Solution-Focused coaching is not about “being positive”.
Solution-Focused is not about denying the reality of tough situations.

Solution-Focused coaching is about noticing what works – in a fact-finding manner.
It is about helping clients observe what they are doing: what does not work (and the client is very aware of that), and what does work (here the client might need a little help: due to the Negativity Bias we are built to pay more attention to the negative – but the point is that we, as SF practitioners, do not add anything!)

It is about exploring the resources clients bring to the coaching session – without any judgement, positive or negative. We are just “resource detectives” – and because we are professional “resource detectives”, we are not planting any evidence!

Solution-Focused coaching is not about wishful thinking – hoping a problem will just go away by not focusing on it (being “solution-focused” does not mean being “problem-phobic“!).
Solution-Focused coaching is not about putting a positive spin on problems: actually, it is about putting no spin at all.

Solution-Focused coaching is about widening clients’ perspectives, so they can escape the narrow view that dealing with a problem usually entails (see Carey Glass). It is a method of helping people get unstuck, as Kirsten Dirolf writes. We can see it as a way to correct the sample bias by inviting clients to include in their reasoning more “data points” (the desired future, useful exceptions, third-party points of view…). But again, we are not interpreting data points and finding trends; and we are definitely not making up data points!

Clients often get in a positive emotional state during a SF coaching conversation – as a consequence of their own discoveries, hopefully prompted by our questions. Not because we tell them so. But because they become more realistic, because they remember what works (and as Wittgenstein said: The aspects of things that are most important for us are hidden because of their simplicity and familiarity. (One is unable to notice somethiing – because it is always before one’s eyes). Philosophical Investigations, #129.)

It is an indirect effect of our work (see Coert Visser on the effectiveness of creating positive expectations indirectly, i.e. priming clients to notice what is working even after the session is done). It is a consequence of a sounder appraisal of the situation on the part of the client, not a distortion due to wearing rosy glasses handed out by the practitioner.

Distinctions: SF and Positive Psychology

Recently, I participated in some online conversations about SF and how it is perceived.

I agree with Kirsten Dierolf and with Coert Visser that there is some confusion about what Solution-Focus is. As Bion would say, the term has become so saturated with meaning to be of increasingly little use as a descriptive term.

Much of the confusion surrounding SF practice seems to stem from a single word that is often used to (mis)characterize SF: “positive“.

I decided to make a few distinctions that I will be posting in the next few days to help us get untangled from this trap that our language has set for us.

Distinction #1: Solution-Focus and Positive Psychology.

Positive Psychology is an umbrella term created by Martin Seligman in 1998. It puts together different strands of research that focus on “how to make life more fulfilling”, not simply treating mental illness.  The term Positive Psychology was meant to “make a self-conscious argument that what makes life worth living deserves its own field of inquiry within Psychology”.  (Peterson C., A Primer in Positive Psychology, 2006, Oxford University Press, p.6).
“Positive Pyschology calls for as much focus on strength as on weakness, as much interest in building the best things in life as in repairing the worst, and as much attention to fulfilling the lives of healthy people as to healing the wounds of the distressed”. (Peterson C., A Primer in Positive Psychology, 2006, Oxford University Press, p.5). It is a “science that strives to promote flourishinng and fulfillment at each of the individual, group and social levels. A science that studies what makes life worth living.” (“Positive Psychology in Practice, edited by Linley and Joseph, 2004, preface). It is not just happiology then, and it is a science (vs. humanistic psychology).

IF therapy is about treatment and about helping people function in society (Using a sports metaphor, a therapist makes sure that an injured athlete recovers to compete again, via an effective rehab program)
IF coaching is about helping people function well in society, if it is about living better and about performing better (Using a sports metaphor, a coach makes sure that the athlete performs at his or her best, via an effective training program or effective motivational strategies)

THEN it stands to reason that:

– therapy, SF or otherwise, does NOT need to find connections with Positive Psychology. It might, but it does not have to. Therapy is about treating mental illness. Therapy is rooted in traditional Psychology. Therapy, how to treat mental illness, was the engine that drove traditional Psychology.

- coaching, however, SF or otherwise, does need to find common ground with Positive Psychology: the work done in the field of Positive Psychology should inform coaching practices, and empirically tested coaching protocols should inform the research in Positive Psychology.

Of course to explore connections between Solution-Focus and Positive Psychology we need to evaluate specific SF techniques or protocols vis-à-vis specific research results or theories that fall under the category of Positive Psychology.

That is being done very effectively by many members of the SF community, e.g.:

Carey Glass just wrote an article about the connections between specific Solution-Focused techniques and Fredrickson’s broaden-and-build theory (one of the main theories in Positive Psychology): Exploring What Works: Is SF the best way of harnessing the impact of positive psychology in the workplace?

Michael Hjerth, who has long been discussing and promoting the links between SF practice and Fredrickson’s broaden-and-build theory within the Solution-Focus community.

Coert Visser, who has been connecting dots between specific research results in Positive Psychology and SF practices; for example, in examining what scientific ground we have to justify creating positive expectations in our clients.

Mark McKergow, who has been exploring connections between SF and other fields related to Positive Psychology, such as Appreciative Inquiry.

Solutions-Focused practices and Positive Psychology

I enjoyed reading the Journal InterAction, the new “Journal of Solution-Focus in organizations”.

Each article featured in its first issue was a treasure throve of insights.

I wrote a comment on the paper by Carey Glass: Exploring What Works: Is SF the best way of harnessing the impact of positive psychology in the workplace?

Here is an excerpt from my comment:

The connection between emotions and repertoire of actions, as the author points out, “may provide an explanation for some forms of “stuckness”.
Of course! Clients shift from a system (a constellation of emotion – thoughts – behaviors) primed to a specific action to another system, where they can play around and get unstuck… it is their inner game, literally.

Moreover, the article very brilliantly gave me an answer re another question I had: I am “re-discovering” the power of letting clients dwell in their “preferred future”; so, is my practice just a “feel good” trick?
No, SF is a way to “broaden” clients’ perceptions. Feeling good follows, once clients get “unstuck” and are able to access their memory of the (successful) past experiences and of the (preferred) future.
SF is a respectful way to elicit positive emotions (vs. “positive thinking”): in SF we invite clients to explore the whole situation with a lot of details, therefore noticing the positive, while in “positive thinking” the practitioner rams the positive he or she sees into the throat of the client.

Another point that really resonated with me was about the transfer of some SF practices in organizations: Carey is right, sometimes we are shy (or at least I am) about asking the miracle question in organizational settings. I get intimated myself by the business suits and the million-euros budgets. I feel the need to be “practical”. But that can be a mistake. Now I have some form of evidence that I should stick to things that work, like the miracle question. And actually, in the executive coaching session that most made me happy recently, I did go SF all the way, miracle question included, and it worked: the client wanted to at least get a handle of one big problem (and it would take many sesisons, he thought, to work on that). In a little over an hour, he “solved” that and two lesser problems, on top of it!

Download the article by Carey Glass here.

Read my whole comment here.

Effective Stress Management, Solution-Focused style

Lately the workshop on Stress Management has been my best seller.

I have led three such 2-day workshops in the past month alone. Sign of the times, I guess.

In leading this workshop I am using what I call a sample-and-build approach.
First, I establish a positive and resourceful setting, by:
a) having participants define what they want instead of feeling stressed
b) inviting them to look at exceptions
c) inviting them to share their stories in a structured format.
This is the build part. We are bulding effective stress management strategies based on the participants’ skills and experiences. Sharing is a big part of creating excitement about what the participants are building.

Then, we move on to the  sample part.
There are a few Stress Management techniques demonstrated to work. Some of them are derived from Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, others from Relaxation and Mindfulness approaches.
I give participants the chance to try each technique: e.g. I lead them in a “reframing” exercise and I lead them in a Progressive Muscle Relaxation exercise, and so on.
At the end of the workshop they have had the experience of several different techniques. This is the sampling part.
They have then the elements to decide which technique works best for them and pursue that: in this age of youtube, shared knowledge and easy access to handbooks and manuals, the resources are all out there to make a meal out of the original sample.
This way the new technique is seamlessly integrated in each participant’s behavioral repertoire.
Back to the build phase again.

And the learning cycle goes on…

The feedback I received from participants so far has been extremely positive!