Solution-Focused Coaching & Positive Outcomes

Guest post by Coert Visser

Solution-focused principles and techniques, orginally developed in psychotherapy, have found their way into coaching, over the last decade. While an evidence base of solution-focused brief therapy is beginning to come off the ground, little research is done on the effectiveness of solution-focused coaching (one researcher who is already doing interesting research in this area is Anthony Grant). It is important that an evidence base on solution-focused coaching is built, too. Individual clients, client organizations and society at large rightfully demand that solution-focused professionals not only discover things that work but also justify what they do by scientifically testing their claims.

Standard effectiveness research approaches involve randomized controlled experiments in which the treatment of interest is compared with a reference approach and a control group. A recent review summarizes this type of coaching research, which is still in its infancy. While this approach is indispensable it is not the only useful approach and it is not without weaknesses. For one thing, this type of research requires the existence of generally accepted definitions of the treatments (coaching procedures) that are researched. This type of research comparing coaching approaches does say something about the relative effectiveness of these approaches but does not say much about the relative contribution of the constituent elements of these approaches because these are not examined separately in these types of experiments but in combination with each other.

Research aimed at a micro level of coaching can be an important addition to these standard research approaches. One example is micro-analysis research done by Janet Beavin Bavelas and her colleagues. Micro-analysis research will, in the near future, I predict, be supported by software to analyze language used in coaching conversations. As this type of research will develop a much more nuanced and specific kind of knowledge will emerge about what works and what not.

Survey based research also offers some interesting opportunities to analyze the specific interventions and behaviors of solution-focused coaches. Recently I published such a study: Testing the Association between Solution-Focused Coaching and Client Perceived Coaching Outcomes. I designed a web-based survey and administered it to 200 clients of coaches. The survey consisted of a list of 28 coach behaviors, 14 of which were solution-focused behaviors and 14 of which were behaviors solution-focused coaches would deliberately avoid. I asked clients to describe what their coaches had done and what they had not done (without referring to the solution-focused approach or any other approach, by the way). In addition to that, I asked clients to describe on several dimensions how effective the coaching had been. Solution-focused coach behaviors turned out to be were strongly positively correlated to positive coaching outcomes. Non-solution-focused coach behaviors, on the other hand, turned out to be moderately negatively correlated to positive coaching outcomes.

Then, I used a statistical technique called multiple regression analysis which gave insight into which specific coach behaviors were predictive of coaching success. This showed that the following 10 solution-focused coach behaviors in particular were associated with positive coaching outcomes:

  • The coach responded with understanding to what I said (coach understandingness)
  • The coach let me decide whether the coaching should be continued or terminated (client continuation choice)
  • The coach focused on topics that I found useful to talk about (client topic choice)
  • The coach encouraged me to describe how I wanted my situation to become (desired situation description)
  • The coach encouraged me to describe what I wanted to be able to do differently (positive future behavior description)
  • The coach gave me positive feedback (complimented me on what I had done well) (positive behavior feedback)
  • The coach encouraged me to choose which step(s) forward I would to take (client chosen action)
  • The coach used the same words as I had used (language matching)
  • The coach checked several times whether our conversation was useful to me (client usefulness check
  • The coach asked questions about what I had already done that had worked well (exploration of what worked)

The number of non-solution-focused coach behaviors that was predictive of positive outcomes was smaller. Three coach behaviors were, as expected, negatively associated with coaching outcomes:

  • The coach told me whether the coaching should be continued or terminated (coach continuation choice),
  • The coach gave me negative feedback (criticized me on what I had done wrong) (negative behavior feedback), and
  • The coach chose what topics we talked about (coach topic choice).

Surprisingly (and interestingly), two non-solution-focused coach behaviors were, contrary to this study’s expectations, positively associated with coaching outcomes:

  • The coach analyzed with me what the causes of my problem might be (problem cause analysis)
  • The coach asked questions about when my problems were at their worst (problem peak focus)

I hope this is a good (while modest) beginning of survey based research into the effectiveness of solution-focused interventions in coaching. The details of the study can be found in the full article. Soon, I hope to publish a study into the effects of the coaching approach on coaches themselves

Solution-Focused Coach Training – California, 2012. Registration now open!

The registration is now open for the 2012 California edition of SolutionsurfersBrief Coach Training.

Here is the link with all the information about the program:

To sign up, please send an email to:

If you want to find out more about the training program and how it can benefit you,

you are invited to attend one  of the following conference calls:

– Friday, January the 27th, at 12 noon PST (3 PM EST)

– Tuesday, February the 14th, at 9 AM PST (12 noon EST)

– Wednesday, March the 14th, 9 AM PST (12 noon EST) ***please note that the early bird rate is available only until March 1.

Please RSVP with Ms. Corey Godzwa at and you will be sent the information to access the conference call.

Microanalysis and Solution-Focus: change happens in the details

One of the key principles of Solution-Focus practice is that “The Action is in the Inter-Action”, as Mark McKergow and Paul Z Jackson brilliantly put it. Which means that we “co-construct” meaning and solutions in the interaction.

But how?

This is where microanalysis comes in. Pioneered and extensively used by Janet Beavin Bavelas and her research group at the University of Victoria, microanalysis is defined as “the detailed and reliable examination of observable communication sequences as they proceed, moment by moment, in the dialogue”….

My guest post on Microanalysis in Coert Visser’s Blog.

Read more here >>>>>>

On Positive Feedback

Solution-Focus relies on positive feedback – i.e. noticing what is working and going right instead of pointing out what is not working and going wrong.

Even more so with Solution-Focused training: for example, the whole Solutionsurfers’ Brief Coach Training is designed around positive feedback. Exclusively positive feedback. That makes the learning experience unique. At first participants are disoriented – but very quickly they begin to appreciate the empowering nature of positive feedback. Practice session after practice session, each participant’s unique coaching skills develop and evolve, by focusing on what works and ignoring what does not. A process similar to Darwinian Evolution, as pointed out here.

Yet, somehow, not using negative feedback is considered to be a sign of being a wimp. A softie. Out of touch with reality.

Actually, that is quite the opposite.

Everybody can deliver negative feedback. But only expert performers can deliver positive feedback. Because positive feedback is based on tacit knowledge rather than explicit knowledge.

This point has been brilliantly developed by Gary Klein in his latest book “Streetlights and Shadows – Searching for the Keys to Adaptive Decision Making” (pages 45-47).

His reasoning:

– “when we try to improve performance, we usually emphasize explicit knowledge more than tacit knowledge”; that is because “it is hard to give people feedback about tacit knowledge”

– so “in giving feedback, we tend to focus on specific procedures

– but that means “we give feedback about departures from procedures, instead of helping people to notice subtle cues and patterns”.

– conclusion: “we find it easier to give feedback about errors than about skillful actions or about  improvements in mental models“.

So while how to deliver negative feedback is a critical and important skill, delivering positive feedback is an often neglected ingredient for building expert performance.

Noticing what works is an essential part of developing expertise. And you need to be an expert to notice the little things that are working, maybe just a little bit.

Positive feedback is for pros! :-)