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

When Solution-Focus does not work…

I have been coaching this client on and off for many years now.

An executive, I met him for the first time when I was fresh off the Solution-Focused training and i was discovering its power in coaching conversations.

So I was eager to try Solution-Focus on him, too – I listened eagerly to his problem talk, waiting for an opening. Sure enough, there was one and I asked about it, trying to shift to solution talk.

He quickly answered, and then went on to describe the numerous downsides of that one positive exception to the problem.

Undeterred, I tried again. And again.

It was frustrating.

It was a dance that went nowhere – me trying to highlight the positive, he bringing the conversation back to what was not working.

How come he did not accept my invitations for solution talk?

Even after I listened to him for a long time?

Why was he dismissing my remarks about positive occurrences as a way to sugarcoat the reality?

This is the beginning of my guest post on Coert Visser’s Solution-Focused Change blog. Read the rest of the post, and comments to it, here–>

Interview with Janet Beavin Bavelas, Ph.D.

Janet Beavin Bavelas, Ph.D., F.R.S.C., is one of of the co-authors of Pragmatics of Human Communication and, as a Professor Emeritus of Psychology at the University of Victoria, still at the forefront of research into interpersonal communication. The research team she leads specializes in the study of face-to-face dialogue – their findings have direct applications in psychotherapy, counseling, coaching, and management. I had the privilege and the pleasure to attend her workshop on microanalysis at the 2010 SFBTA Conference in Banff, Canada.

I was so happy to finally encounter an empirical research method dedicated to exploring the power of interaction to produce change! In my opinion, every Solution-Focused practitioner should become familiar with Janet Beavin Bavelas work: her research results are an essential part in establishing the scientific credentials of Solution-Focus.

Besides being an innovative thinker and a thorough scientist, Janet Bavelas is also a very engaging person and she very kindly accepted to be interviewed for my blog – here are her answers to my questions. I suggest  you take the time to read this interview again and again – as her motto goes, “Life Happens in Detail” and many insights wait for you in the details of her thought-provoking answers. Enjoy!

1)  You have been working a lot with Solution Focused practitioners in the past few years, using Microanalysis to investigate Solution Focused conversations. Can you briefly tell us what draws you to Solution-Focus?

Good question–especially because I’m an experimental psychologist, with absolutely no practical training in therapy or anything else!  I’m glad someone finally asked me that question, because I’ve had my answers ready:

First, Steve, Insoo, and I had the same roots, learning from the Palo Alto Group and especially John Weakland.  The three of us were not there at the same time, but that experience was a lasting influence for all of us.  (I agree with Steve and Insoo, who in a 1991 article pointed out that their SFBT was just one small change from the original Palo Alto Brief Therapy.)  In addition to John’s many wonderful qualities as a mentor, there was the focus of the whole Palo Alto Group on language and communication. That heritage makes it easy for my research group to teach what we do to SFBT folks.  For example, you have the right focus on observable communication rather than on inferred mental processes.

Second, I admit that I am always attracted to good idea that is 180° from what everyone else is thinking.  The new idea has to be a good one as well as challenging assumptions that no one usually questions–then I’m interested.  That was true for the original Brief Therapy and is also true for SFBT.

The third reason is ethical. My personal ethics will not accept inventing negative characterizations of a client and imposing these labels on someone who is vulnerable.  I say “inventing” because there is usually no basis except the opinion of someone in authority. For example, diagnosis usually categorizes an individual based on a single highly limited observation, with no objective check or recheck. The individual arrives at a consultation with one problem and leaves with at least two! More broadly, clinical theories of  personality, cognition, emotion, or brain processes almost always indulge in circular reasoning.  For example,
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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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