Solution-Focused Practice & Wittgenstein

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When philosophers use a word – “knowledge”, “being”, “object”, “I”, “proposition”, “name” – and try to grasp the essence of the thing, one must always ask oneself: is the word ever actually used in this way in the language-game which is its original home? What we do is to bring words back from their metaphysical to their everyday useWittgenstein, #116, Philosophical Investigations

Clients use words like: “unsatisfied”, “undecided”, “stuck”, “fearful”, unable to”, “personality”, “leader”, “executive”, “organization”, “team”.
They also use sentences like: “being more productive”, “being more assertive”, “being a decision-maker”, “being a team-player”, “working better & working less”.

Clients try to grasp the essence of the problem, the root cause of why they feel_____ or why they are_____ or why other people are_____  or why the organization / team is__________

As Solution-Focused practitioners what we do is to help clients bring words back from their metaphysical (i.e. generalizing judgement) to their everyday use (i.e. specific behavioral & contextual descriptions).
We work with specific behaviors in specific situations in specific moments of time in specific interactions (everyday use) –  and when that happens, generalizations and labels crumble, a whole range of different episodes presents itself instead, and solutions emerge.

A picture held us captive. And we could not go outside it, for it lay in our language and language seemed to repeat it to us inexorably – Wittgenstein, #115, Philosophical Investigations

The Smallest Solution-Focused Particles

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What is the essence of Solution-Focused practice?

Is it the use of some key techniques, like asking the “Miracle Question”?

Or is it something else?

Veronica Bliss and Dominic Bray try to give an answer to these questions in a little gem of a paper titled: THE SMALLEST SOLUTION FOCUSED PARTICLES: TOWARDS A MINIMALIST DEFINITION OF WHEN THERAPY IS SOLUTION FOCUSED published in the Journal of Systemic Therapies.

As the authors note, some practitioners use typical SF techniques, and yet it does not feel they are “doing” SF; and, on the other hand, some practitioners might not be using some key SF techniques and yet it feels they are “doing” SF.

What are then the “smallest solution-focused particles”?

To answer this question the authors take us on a journey in the history of SF: how SF was born; what its major tenets are; the key role of the therapist in SF.

The authors then talk in detail about the different attempts of coming up with technique-oriented definitions of SFBT, including the minimum requirements listed by the European Brief Therapy Association (EBTA).

This alone makes for very interesting reading.

Veronica Bliss and Dominic Bray then introduce some clinical examples of SFBT done without the use of key techniques – mainly work done with people who have limited cognitive abilities, a kind of work that led the authors to “question the technique-oriented definition of SFBT”.

And here I put in my two cents.

From the opposite end of the spectrum (i.e. coaching, not therapy; executives, not people with limited cognitive abilities), my work has led me to question the technique-oriented definition of SF practice, too.

I did have some coaching sessions in which I was definitely brief (less than 20 minutes), in which I felt I was definitely solution-focused and yet in which no or very few SF key techniques were used: the conversation just flowed naturally following a SF rhythm.

I now consider this to be a sign of Mastery: to leave as little of a footprint as possible in the coaching conversation. Do what is necessary, and only that. Simplify to the utmost. In this I am echoing Peter Szabo‘s position that the brief coach is a “witness” of clients’ change – read his 10 brief-coaching assumptions here.

Still, all this begs the question: what are “the smallest number of parameters that distinguish solution-focused work from other kinds of therapy”?

The authors, “in the spirit of the minimalist tradition” (to which I subscribe 100%) find two sets of parameters:

a) the role of the client and of the SF practitioner

b) certain key steps.

Let’s take a look at these two points.

a) the client’s role and the SF practitioner’s role.

The quality of client-practitioner interaction is unique in SF.

Clients not only are “the experts” (one of the main tenets of SF practice) but also have “fewer requirements put upon them.. than they do with other types of psychotherapy“. They do not need to learn the language of the therapist nor to fit the therapist’s frame of reference. They do not have to subscribe to a diagnosis nor even to talk about their problem!

SF practitioners‘ behavior is what makes the difference.
Much has been said about keeping a posture of “not-knowing”.
The authors here, though, go for a very simple idea: “the absolute minimal requirement for uniquely solution focused work is the co-construction aspect which requires that the therapist learn from the client”.

b) This idea of the SF practitioner learning from the client leads us directly to the second point highlighted by the authors: the therapist needs to learn from the client about 4 key things:

“1 – the person’s preferred future and implications thereof (perhaps using the miracle question, but perhaps not)

2 – how they both will know when they are moving in the right direction (perhaps using scaling questions but perhaps not)

3 – what the client can do more of or what he or she might do differently to start moving in that direction

4 – how they will both know when they have done enough SFBT”.

These are, in the words of the authors, “unique aspects which need to be operationalized in the most minimal, least restrictive way.”

Incidentally, the first 3 steps listed above correspond directly to the view of SF practice as a Darwinian Algorithm, which I articulated in a recently published paper.

Veronica Bliss & Dominic Bray’s minimalist summary of SF matches my summary of SF as a Darwinian Algorithm point by point:

1 – preferred future and implications thereof / establishing a fitness function

2 – knowing when we are moving in the right direction / searching for and scoring useful behaviors

3 – what the client can do more of or what he or she might do differently / replicate behaviors with the highest score and recombine them.

Though using a different language and starting out from a different perspective, I share with the authors of this paper the quest to get to the core of SF and to capture its beautiful simplicity and elegant effectiveness.

Bliss, E.V., Bray, D. (2009). THE SMALLEST SOLUTION FOCUSED PARTICLES: TOWARDS A MINIMALIST DEFINITION OF WHEN THERAPY IS SOLUTION FOCUSED Journal of Systemic Therapies, 28 (2), 62–74