“Solution-Focused” Coaching

Explaining the kind of Coaching I practice can be very frustrating.

I believe the label ‘Solution-Focus’ does not help – but it is what we have.

So let me be clear: “solution-focused” (as opposed to “problem-focused”) does not mean we are problem-phobic, as Insoo Kim Berg herself said; it does not mean we wear rose-tinted glasses and we live in a Polyanna world.

It simply means we adhere to the empirical finding that analyzing problems does not make a difference when trying to solve people-problems, e.g. managing a difficult employee or making a behavioral change (as opposed to “mechanical” or “medical” problems, i.e. fixing the car or healing an infection).

Finding out why you act out some behaviors again and again can be very interesting – yet it does not help you change those behaviors.

Analyzing why your co-worker is so obnoxious can be very interesting – yet it does not bring you any closer to a solution of the problem you have when you work with her.

As a professional, of course you can engage in those conversations – while interesting, though, those conversations are not essential to help clients move forward. You can safely skip them without affecting the outcome, and with the added benefit of saving time.

OK, so the “solution-focused” methodology allows practitioners to cut to the chase and do only what is necessary to catalyze a successful outcome for clients. That is why in Solution-Focus the number of coaching sessions needed is typically 2, the number of therapy sessions needed is usually no more than 4. Again, it is no magic. It is economy of effort. Brief by definition.

So why don’t we drop the label “Solution-Focus” and just use “Brief-Coaching”?

That is what I often do. However, as soon as the conversation with a prospect gets started, you kind of need to qualify the word “brief”.

That is because, unfortunately, other approaches in therapy got to that word first: but they use it to convey a very different meaning.

For example, “Brief Psychodynamic Therapy” is  “typically considered to be no more than 25 sessions (Bauer and Kobos, 1987). In the same page on the NIH website we read that “Crits-Christoph and Barber included models allowing up to 40 sessions.” (!!!)

When Psychodynamic Therapists talk about “Brief” they mean something of a different order of magnitude than what Solution-Focused Brief Therapists mean (40 vs. 4).

So we practice and teach “Brief Coaching”. But we often need to qualify it: “Solution-Focused Brief Coaching“.

Be Bold, Be Brief, Be Gone – Major Megan Malia-Leilani McClung, USMC

Interview with Coert Visser

We have the pleasure to publish an interview with Coert Visser, Dutch Psychologist, author and expert on the Solution-Focused approach. His blog has become over the years a trusted source of reference regarding cutting-edge Psychological research which is relevant to Solution-Focused practitioners, coaches and consultants.

So I was very excited to have the opportunity to pick his brain regarding matters we both care a lot about. Here is the interview:

Q: Can you briefly tell us how you got interested in the solution-focused approach?

A: Before I heard about the solution-focused approach I was working as an associate director at a very large international consultancy firm. I felt a certain dissatisfaction with my work which I did not fully understand. Somehow, I decided to reflect carefully and came up with the question: when did I really feel gratified with my work? When thought about this deeply I discovered to my great surprise that the four or five situations of gratification which I had identified were rather strange cases. They were situations in which I had worked with clients and in which I had worked quite differently from what was normal for the firm and for myself. Yet, the clients had been very satisfied.

All of these cases had a few things in common. First, I had asked many questions; in particular variations on the questions: “What do you want to achieve?” and “Why do you want to achieve that?” Second, instead of providing standardized prescriptions for solutions I thought along with clients and really tried to understand them. And I improvised. I was very confused when I found this out. A few days later I was talking about this with a colleague manager and shared my discovery: “I have found I am most successful in my work for clients when I am asking questions.” He replied: “I understand. But I don’t think clients will pay money for questions. We’re in the business of providing answers.”

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The Client is the Expert

Here is a short story that very well illustrates why I love Solution-Focus Coaching and its magic in bringing out clients’ expertise.

My Coaching Client is the Administration Manager for a small but fast-growing company, and we are having a Coaching session over Skype.

Topic of the session: he wants his co-workers to be “more motivated“.

I know that the concept of “motivation” is a tricky one.

Personally I am very skeptical about the whole construct.

And recently published works by Daniel Pink and by Dan Ariely show how the notion of “motivating someone” is little more than a myth.

However, operating under Solution-Focused assumptions, I am not supposed to share these recent insights from psychology with my Client. Even though the role of the “know-it-all” nerd fits me perfectly well, I have to bite my tongue.

As it often happens during tough moments in Coaching, I look at the card pictured above, that sits prominently on my desk. It reads:  “Slow Down, Calm Down, Don’t’ Worry, Don’t Hurry, Trust the Process.”

So I did just that: I relaxed, got my hands off the steering wheel and let the Solution-Focused process unfold, one question at a time.

“Suppose your co-workers are more motivated. What would you notice? What would they be doing differently? What would you be doing differently? What else? Have there been times recently when your employees behaved in the desired manner?…”

The client answers eagerly the first questions – however, as we go into more details of how things would be different, I can sense his frustration. A sort of tension simmering.

At some point he stops and says: “I am wondering… maybe I got it all wrong.”

Me: “what do you mean?”

Client: “well… I do not think I need to motivate them. They are already motivated! It’s just that they like to work in a different way –  each with his or her own area of responsibility rather than as a team! And to be working in this company as a team would mean a huge cultural change, given our history. This has got more to do with my expectation of how the company could grow in the future than with actual motivation or work performance!”

What an insight! Without me suggesting anything, the client got to the same conclusion as that of current cutting-edge research: you cannot “motivate” employees. You can only create the right conditions for them to be engaged in their work.

I looked once again at that card – and I smiled to myself.