“You have a filter that…” – on staying on the surface

You have a filter that makes you see the good in people and so…

The sentence above was said in a simulated Coaching conversation that took place during our recent Solutionsurfers Brief Coach Training.

A student of mine, a seasoned Coach, made that comment as he was role-playing as a Solution-Focused Coach.

The comment was meant as a compliment for the Client, as affirming Client’s strengths.

Yet it felt to me as a piece of chalk screeching on a blackboard.

That comment vividly highlights a key distinction between Solution-Focus and other Coaching models.

Mainstream Coaching models are based on more or less explicit theories about how the mind works and about how change happens.

So, depending on which Coaching school you are training with, you might learn we have “filters” in our minds: or that we have “orientations“; or that each person belongs to a specific “personality type” with a set of characteristics and preferred ways of behaving; you might learn that some people are  inclined to specific “defense mechanisms“, each one with its own dynamic. You might learn people have different ways of “processing information” so you need to tailor your communication in specific ways.  It is very likely you might learn that we have “blocks” or “obstacles” to overcome, “patterns” to defeat. You might also learn that people need “motivation” or more “willpower” – as if they were specific “things” that can be acquired, used and depleted.

All of the above are constructs which have an intriguing explanatory power. They make sense.

They are based on underlying metaphors for understanding the mind: the mind as a computer, the mind as a mechanical (or hydraulic) machine, the mind as a theater of different characters…

Notice that no one ever observed a “filter” in the mind, or a “block” or a form of energy called “willpower” – they are just ways to make sense of how  we think.

I am not saying that they are not scientifically legitimate constructs; some of them might be – all I am saying is that they are constructs, not observable entities.

And in Solution-Focus we stay on the surface. We do not deal with mental constructs.

We encourage Clients to focus on observable behaviors in specific situations; we ask them about events and their context; we ask about what they might notice and what other people might notice.

If a Client wants to have more “willpower” the classical Solution-Focus response would be: “How would you know you have more willpower? What would you be doing differently? What would other people notice you doing differently?…” Everything is brought back to observable behaviors which make a difference.

This is because of the way Solution-Focus was born and was developed: not deduced from a theory but built empirically, inductively, from the bottom-up, by slowly figuring out what worked and what did not work in conversations designed to help Clients.

In Solution-Focus there is no overarching theory about change. We have some tenets, which have been found inductively. We might have different clues about why SF works, but we do not have a coherent theory. That is the unique characteristic of SF, its pride and maybe the main obstacle to a wider diffusion. It is tempting to offer an explanation. It is sexy to have a Model of Change: with neat graphs, diagrams, arrows and fancy names. But in Solution-Focus circles we like to travel light in the realm of assumptions and explanations. We like to stay in the conversation, as it happens, without adding anything.

The student  of mine who was playing the Coachee in this role-play was relating some specific episodes of her life and her positive, upbeat attitude in dealing with them – she never mentioned having “filters”.

That is something the Coach added.

And now the dynamics of the conversation changes. From a Solution-Focused perspective, it becomes more difficult.

Instead of having richness of details, and maybe some seeds of solutions, some useful exceptions, we have a generalization – unique perspectives have been swept under the rug of “filter”.  Useful behaviors already happening have been swallowed by a concept, by a rationalization.

Note that this is a standard approach in other Coaching models: the Client has to learn the theory of the Coach and the language of the Coach; only then, the Client can appreciate and use the “expert solution” handed down by the Coach.

It is not a formal learning, but an implicit learning that Clients go through – with comments like that, Clients learn about “filters”, and “styles” and all sorts of mental constructs.

We do not do that in Solution-Focus.

We do not add anything. We do not have anything to add!

We stay on the surface.

We use the words Clients use and we try to make their meaning explicit, to us and to the Client.

Our intent is not to explain things and offer interpretations (adding stuff); rather, our intent is to help clients see what is there (describing, showing), hoping they find something useful.

So it is the other way around: it is the Coach who has to learn the language of the Client.

Because it is in the Clients’ worldview, expressed in their own words, from their unique perspectives, based on their experiences, where sustainable and long-lasting solutions are found.

Little Bets – How Breakthrough Ideas Emerge from Small Discoveries

Little Bets by Peter Sims is a small treatise on successful innovation.

I think it is more than that – it is a treatise on how to navigate complexity successfully.

It shares with Solution-Focus a strictly inductive approach – in the author’s words: “little bets are concrete actions taken to discover, test and develop ideas that are achievable and affordable”.

According to current research, Peter Sims points out that there are two kinds of innovators:

conceptual innovators” – rare characters who start with a bold vision and pursue it relentlessly, often achieving important breakthroughs early in life; Mozart or Bill Gates can be thought of as belonging to this category

experimental innovators” – people like the comedian Chris Rock, or Amazon’s founder Jeff Bezos. They do not begin with a brilliant idea but they discover it by using an experimental, iterative, trial-and-error approach.

I would definitely put Insoo Kim Berg and Steve de Shazer, the founders of the Solution-Focused approach, in the latter category!

Peter Sims illustrates the key principles according to which experimental innovators operate by using many examples – from Pixar, from P&G, from HP, from the US Army, from Starbucks, from famous architects, Nobel – prize winners and famous performers.

It is definitely the stories that make this book interesting and a pleasant read.

The chapters’ titles summarize the key points:

Big Bets vs. Little Bets: little bets allow us to develop the situation and find out more about what works by acting and observing how the system responds

– the Growth Mindset: it is necessary to have a Growth Mindset because the small bets approach implies failure

Failing Quickly to Learn Fast: since we are going to fail, it is best to be wrong as fast as possible, so we can discover asap what is right. One great way of doing that is by testing prototypes in the real world and then improve on them; “it is better to fix problems than to prevent errors”

the Genius of Play; humor, laughter, focusing on the positive and what is working; that is the key to create an atmosphere where experimentation is possible

Problems are the New Solutions: constraints (budget, timeframe, materials…) actually help you focus and measure your progress; creativity does not happen in a void

Questions are the New Answers: throw out theory and start experiencing things – “we can’t even know what questions to ask until we reach beyond what is already known through a process of discovery: carefully exploring, observing and listening”. The key to innovation is asking the right questions

Learning a Little from a Lot – the importance of being open to experience and to different points of view

Learning a Lot from a Little – tapping into “active users” (early adopters) to better understand what people might want

Small Wins: they are important building blocks, they are “landmarks that can either confirm we are heading in the right direction or tell us we need to change course”

An essential read for entrepreneurs, leaders, coaches and consultants.