The Interactional View of Emotions and Solution-Focus

Following up on a recent post in which I noted how Barbara Fredrickson put forward an interactional view of love, I read Lisa Feldman Barrett paper on the interactional view of emotions.

In her paper Psychological Construction: The Darwinian Approach to the Science of Emotion I found a stance that is very useful to Solution-Focused practitioners and which validates our perspective on change (“action is in the inter-action“).

Take the following: “Our hypothesis is that during every waking moment of life, mental states are constructed as interoceptive cues from the body and exteroceptive cues from the world are continually categorized and made meaningful with conceptual knowledge stored from past experience. […]. In our view, an instance of emotion is constructed when affective changes are categorized as related to the situation using an instance of an emotion concept BECAUSE those affective changes are in the focus of attention […].”.

Changing the focus of attention is key to constructing emotions, according to Barrett. Isn’t one of the main purposes of SF that of shifting clients’ perceptions from a problem-frame to a solution/opportunity-frame?

Also: “Emotions are said to be coordinated packets of physiology, experience and behavior, but every waking moment of life is just such a coordinated package; there is no package that is “essentially” anger, or sadness, or even emotion.” If emotions are not essences but categorizations of perceptions, then a conversation as a tool for change makes a lot of sense: it would not change an “essence” but it would surely change what we perceive and how.

SF is such an effective, elegant and powerful tool because it does not put any kind of label on clients and does not see them through the lens of a theory. On the contrary, SF practitioners stay on the surface and resist the temptation to categorize or to look for the “essence” of the problem. That is why I could not help but smile when I read this: “Progress in the science of emotion depends on whether we can resist the urge to essentialize.

Welcome to the interactional view, science of emotion!

Update on 6/30: The Boston Magazine has caught up with me, I mean with the importance of Lisa Barrett’s work :) for psychology. Here is a link to their feature article –>

Can Focusing on Progress Undo the Progress?

Professor Ayelet Fischback and Professor Ravi Dhar discovered one paradoxical effect of focusing on progress: “goal liberation“.

Here is how it works: happy with the progress made toward a long-term goal, the brain turns off the mental processes that were driving the pursuit of the long-term goal and turns towards goals that have not yet been satisfied. Which often are in conflict with the long-term goal.

For example, a group of successful dieters were complimented on the progress made toward their ideal weight. Then they were offered either an apple or a chocolate bar as a thank-you gift. 85% of those  reminded of their progress chose the chocolate (vs. 58% in control group). Similarly, students made to feel good about the amount of time they studied were more likely to spend the evening hanging out with friends instead of studying.

The above is relevant to Solution-Focused practitioners since we invite clients to notice progress.

Is this SF practice actually undermining clients’ goals?

I think not, for a few significant reasons:

1) we go into details. We ask clients how they managed to make progress. What it is they did. We compliment them on their successful efforts against difficult odds.

2) we clearly point them towards the next step. In other words, we quickly invest the “energy” gained by exploring success and progress to figuring out how they can make further progress. We keep them on track, on the same goal.

3) we use scaling questions to put progress into perspective: what has been achieved and what still needs to be achieved.

I think this fits well with what research says is effective in undoing the “goal liberation” effect: viewing one’s actions as evidence of commitment to one’s goals.

Researchers found that while the question “how much progress do you feel you have made on your goal?” tends to activate the goal liberation effect, the question “So how committed do you feel to your goal now?” does not.

Regarding the former, the SF playbook calls for a scaling question and / or going for the behavioral evidence regarding the feeling that progress has been made. Being brought back to the behaviors, and the efforts involved, would be enough, I believe, to remind clients of how much they invested in this, and to engage our need to be consistent. In other words, we do not dwell on the feeling but we explore how we got there and how we can do more of that.

Regarding the latter, I see it as very similar to a scaling question regarding confidence, something SF practitioners use very often.

Moreover, in another study, researchers found that when they ask students to remember a time they turned down a temptation, then 70% of them take the next opportunity to indulge. But when they were also asked to remember why they had resisted, the effect disappears. I think in this scenario “why” is equivalent to the true and tested SF question: “How did you manage to resist temptation?”.

What do you think?

Credit also to Professor Kelly McGonigal whose book “The Willpower Instinct” inspired this post.

Love 2.0 and the interactional view

In her latest book, Love 2.0, the renowned Positive Psychology author Barbara Fredrickson introduced an interactional view of love.

According to the latest research she presents in her book, love is not so much a noun but rather a verb. It is something that emerges in micro-moments of interactions between living beings, when they share a positive emotion, resonate with it in synchrony and build on it to deeply care about each other.

In other words, love is in-between.

This view mirrors the stance of Solution-Focused practitioners when we say that solutions and change and the future all emerge in-between, in the space of dialogue and interaction, rather than being determined by inner drives or outer social pressures.

Seeing how SF and current Positive Psychology thought are somehow converging on this interactional view was quite interesting to behold.

Great intro to Positive Psychology


Shawn Achor does an excellent job introducing Positive Psychology in a very funny, engaging way, and in all of 12 minutes.

What I found really interesting was the first graph he showed his audience.

It highlighted the data point which “messed up” the neat averages and trends.

I think in this search for “anomalies” Solution-Focus shares its roots with Positive Psychology.

As Solution-Focused practitioners we do not hide such a data point.

Quite the opposite. We keep asking questions, and specific kind of questions, until we help clients see just those data points. The useful exceptions. What defies negative generalizations and stands out as a success, even if tiny.

“No problem happens 100% of the time. What happens the rest of the time?”.

I also think this attitude in the DNA of the Solution-Focused method of inquiry explains the gap with psychological research. A gap so difficult for many SF practitioners to bridge.

Researchers deal with averages, trends, statistics, constructs.

Solution-Focused  practitioners deal with individuals, single episodes of “when things are a little bit better”, details and real-world, observable interactions.

Of course this gap disappears if we are thinking of outcomes to find evidence of Solution-Focus effectiveness. But it is there in the forma mentis of psychological researchers vis-a-vis Solution-Focused practitioners.

I just thought that was interesting.

Virtual teams?

I work a lot via Skype, and I find it very effective in one-on-one coaching sessions.

Actually, when doing Brief Coaching, I work exclusively via Skype – and it works!

On longer coaching engagement, say for Leadership Development, I found that a mix of face-to-face sessions and Skype sessions is the best.

The ratio depends on the topics we are working on, but typically face-to-face sessions lend themselves well to build rapport and trust, a very precious commodity when dealing with challenging issues. Moreover, face-to-face sessions might be needed if direct observation and immediate behavioral feedback is required as part of our work together. Still, I feel that most of the work can be done remotely, and a ratio of 2:1 for me is pretty standard (2 Skype sessions for each face-to-face session).

I am sharing the above to make clear I am a big fan of technology: coaching via Skype is effective and it saves traveling time / money, to the practitioner and to the client. Moreover, since I am spared the trip, I approach the session fresher and with more energy, and that allows me to be at my best for clients.

While Skype is effective for coaching or consulting conversations, I have always been on the fence about “virtual teams”, i.e. video conferencing as the main environment for teams to gather and interact.

Since my first work assignments with IBM Consulting back in 1997, I noticed you could have groups working together via the internet or intranet – but a group a team does not make.

The qualities of cohesion and deep alignment, hallmarks of great teams, are hard to come by via cable and monitors.

Some research seems to support this: as Ori and Rom Brafman point out in their book  “Click: The Forces Behind How We Fully Engage with People, Work, and Everything We Do“, simple physical proximity is one of the most important predictors of long term personal engagement with someone.

On the other hand, there are some bright examples that seem to point the other way. One of the most spectacular cases of success in using technology to forge a cohesive network and shared team spirit is Gen. Stanley McChrystal‘s JSOC command in Iraq (see his autobiography “My Share of the Task: A Memoir“, more specifically chapter 10, “Entrepreneurs of Battle”).

So I found it really interesting that Yahoo! has been the latest internet company to cut back on teleworking, basically saying that physical presence is necessary for enhancing team identity and coordination. This has been Google’s policy all along – despite all their perks in their campus, Google employees are generally required to be there; exemptions are possible but on a case-by-case basis.

I thought it interesting that some internet companies that sell us virtual connections and social media actually hum to a different tune, relying on physical presence and proximate human contact to foster effective and creative teams. What do you think?

PS: and just as I was editing this post, this was published by The Wall Street Journal. The quote most relevant for our blog post: Like Bank of America, Cubist discovered a correlation between higher productivity and face-to-face interactions.