Recently, I participated in some online conversations about SF and how it is perceived.

I agree with Kirsten Dierolf and with Coert Visser that there is some confusion about what Solution-Focus is. As Bion would say, the term has become so saturated with meaning to be of increasingly little use as a descriptive term.

Much of the confusion surrounding SF practice seems to stem from a single word that is often used to (mis)characterize SF: “positive“.

I decided to make a few distinctions that I will be posting in the next few days to help us get untangled from this trap that our language has set for us.

Distinction #1: Solution-Focus and Positive Psychology.

Positive Psychology is an umbrella term created by Martin Seligman in 1998. It puts together different strands of research that focus on “how to make life more fulfilling”, not simply treating mental illness.  The term Positive Psychology was meant to “make a self-conscious argument that what makes life worth living deserves its own field of inquiry within Psychology”.  (Peterson C., A Primer in Positive Psychology, 2006, Oxford University Press, p.6).
“Positive Pyschology calls for as much focus on strength as on weakness, as much interest in building the best things in life as in repairing the worst, and as much attention to fulfilling the lives of healthy people as to healing the wounds of the distressed”. (Peterson C., A Primer in Positive Psychology, 2006, Oxford University Press, p.5). It is a “science that strives to promote flourishinng and fulfillment at each of the individual, group and social levels. A science that studies what makes life worth living.” (“Positive Psychology in Practice, edited by Linley and Joseph, 2004, preface). It is not just happiology then, and it is a science (vs. humanistic psychology).

IF therapy is about treatment and about helping people function in society (Using a sports metaphor, a therapist makes sure that an injured athlete recovers to compete again, via an effective rehab program)
IF coaching is about helping people function well in society, if it is about living better and about performing better (Using a sports metaphor, a coach makes sure that the athlete performs at his or her best, via an effective training program or effective motivational strategies)

THEN it stands to reason that:

– therapy, SF or otherwise, does NOT need to find connections with Positive Psychology. It might, but it does not have to. Therapy is about treating mental illness. Therapy is rooted in traditional Psychology. Therapy, how to treat mental illness, was the engine that drove traditional Psychology.

- coaching, however, SF or otherwise, does need to find common ground with Positive Psychology: the work done in the field of Positive Psychology should inform coaching practices, and empirically tested coaching protocols should inform the research in Positive Psychology.

Of course to explore connections between Solution-Focus and Positive Psychology we need to evaluate specific SF techniques or protocols vis-à-vis specific research results or theories that fall under the category of Positive Psychology.

That is being done very effectively by many members of the SF community, e.g.:

Carey Glass just wrote an article about the connections between specific Solution-Focused techniques and Fredrickson’s broaden-and-build theory (one of the main theories in Positive Psychology): Exploring What Works: Is SF the best way of harnessing the impact of positive psychology in the workplace?

Michael Hjerth, who has long been discussing and promoting the links between SF practice and Fredrickson’s broaden-and-build theory within the Solution-Focus community.

Coert Visser, who has been connecting dots between specific research results in Positive Psychology and SF practices; for example, in examining what scientific ground we have to justify creating positive expectations in our clients.

Mark McKergow, who has been exploring connections between SF and other fields related to Positive Psychology, such as Appreciative Inquiry.

8 thoughts on “Distinctions: SF and Positive Psychology

  1. Hi Paolo,

    I very much support your endeavor to create clarity around the word “positive”! Thank you.

    One remark concerning:

    “coaching, however, SF or otherwise, does need to find common ground with Positive Psychology: the work done in the field of Positive Psychology should inform coaching practices, and empirically tested coaching protocols should inform the research in Positive Psychology.

    Of course to explore connections between Solution-Focus and Positive Psychology we need to evaluate specific SF techniques or protocols vis-à-vis specific research results or theories that fall under the category of Positive Psychology”

    To my mind, SF stands on a completely different scientific base than Positive Psychology. I understand SF in light of discursive psychology rather than in the light of traditional psychology. The main difference is that in discursive psychology the person is at the center of attention — not inner drivers or external systems that are taken to “cause” human behavior or emotions. What I have read of Seligman’s research seemed to be using the same scientific system as traditional psychology. Therefore I support looking at the results of positive psychology and not throw the baby out with the bathwater (just because they have a different philosophy of cognitive science does not mean one can’t learn from them). However, the results are not directly transferable and we should keep that in mind. For more on this: my interview with Rom Harré on a related topic.
    Thanks for the discussion!

  2. Hi Kirsten,
    thanks for your comment.

    Thanks also for what you wrote on your blog: that is what sparked this posting on mine; I will also post on the following distinctions:
    – SF vs. “being positive”
    – SF vs. “SF lifestyle”

    Back to your comment: I know you like Harre’s work. I looked him up, I read what you had to say about his approach, I liked the little I saw, I need to learn more about him and his approach.Very Wittgensteinesque…
    However, it was not my intention to get into distinctions within the field of Positive Psychology: so I was not supporting a traditional psychology framework (causes and inner drives) vs. discursive psychology (the person as the actor); I was not talking specifically about Seligman or about Fredrickson or other authors. That would require a lot more work and reflection.
    Rather, with Peterson, I was using Positive Psychology as “an umbrella term for what have been isolated lines of theory and research” whose focus is “what makes life worth living” and how to have a more fulfilling life.
    Under this umbrella term of “isolated lines of research” who have this focus, a discursive psychology line of inquiry and a “traditional” psychology framework can still coexist.
    Again, I am not saying they can be both right, simply that in this post I did not mean to make further distinctions within the field of Positive Psychology.
    At this point, what we can do is to “evaluate specific SF techniques or protocols vis-à-vis specific research results or theories (be it Seligman’s, Fredrickson’s, or others) that fall under the category of Positive Psychology”.
    Or do you think that discursive psychology is at a different level and cannot be included in a traditional vs. positive framework at all?

    Thanks again for your stimulating perspective!!!

  3. Hi Paolo, Like you I am for a scientific foundation of solution-focused practice. Here is a post I once wrote about some distinctions and similarities between Positive psychology, the strengths movement and the solution-focused approach: In it I say that PP and the SM tend to high standardization, plan+implement and strengths focus while SF tends to an ideosyncratic, try+learn and doing what works approach. I argue that If the goal of positive psychology is to understand how individuals and institutions thrive (and to promote this) this would NOT necessarily imply a need for high standardization, plan+implement and strengths focus but that the goal of positive psychology could also be accomplished by following an ideosyncratic, try+learn and doing what works approach.
    I view the scientific discipline of psychology as a strong and vibrant discipline which is evolving in interesting ways already as we speak (a case in point is priming research in social psychology). I have no doubt that PP will incorporate more sophisticated and fitting research approaches away from traditional conceptualizations toward more modern ones.
    I hope this is a useful contribution to the discussion.
    all the best,

  4. Hi Coert,
    thanks a lot for the link.

    Thanks also for the useful distinctions: I agree there is a deeper distinction between SF and Positive Psychology – I remember reading some other things you posted about it that made a very good case for that.
    I know some of the tools of Positive Psychology are very traditional, e.g. questionnaires to determine which are your strengths; in SF we do not categorize or “diagnose” strengthw, nor as you point out we pnal+implement.

    My idea was to start a series of postings about the confusion generated by the word “positive”.

    I was hoping to avoid further comparison between SF and Positive Psychology by drawing the line at therapy vs. coaching, regardless of the fact therapy or coaching was SF or not.

    All I was saying was that PP is relevant for coaching, and viceversa, while therapy might or might not find PP relevant (if I am treating OCD, I do not need PP, at least not from a technical standpoint).

    I love how you were able in a few sentence, though, to sum up the differences between SF and PP!

    Thanks for your comment,

  5. Hi Coert!

    Thanks for your comment and for the link!
    Very interesting stuff going on!

    I was not aware there was a “positive psychotherapy”: the term sounds a little bit of a stretch, given the original meaning of “positive psychology” (sort of “solution-focused problem solving”).

    I was not able to open the paper you link to; however, the sub-title is “building a model of empirically supported self-help”. That is awesome! However, self-help is a little bit different than therapy, and the boundaries here are really fuzzy.

    No one is questioning the importance that PP can have in improving general health – more and better relationships or a more fulfilled life means less depression, less anxiety, longer lives.
    But I think that the relatonship between living a more fulfilling life as a form of preventing mental illness is the same between exercise as a form of preventing health problems – yet we do not generally call exercise “therapy” (even though I believe strongly it should be prescribed by doctors!).

    Moreover, I was referring to the kind of relationship existing therapy and coaching models can have with PP. If something new emerges thanks to the relationship between PP and other forms of interventions: great!

    Again: if you have a mental condition (say, depression) you go to a therapist; he/she then is expected to fix that (say, CBT or antidepressant); adding things from PP I believe can be very important too, to make the intervention better and sustainable over time. Just the same as if you have a heart condition you go to a doctor to fix it, and then a proper diet, exercise, “living well” and so on can help a great deal.

    That’s all.
    I will post the second of my distinctions between SF and “positive” as soon as I fix a technical glitch….
    ciao and thanks again for your comments!!

  6. Oh, now in our conversations we are dealing with all these distinctions and forms of therapy.

    I just do not want the main point I was trying to make to get lost:
    – therapy DOES NOT NEED, BUT MIGHT find connections with PP
    – coaching NEEDS TO find connections.

    And my main thrust was meant to be behind the “coaching needs to” find connections with PP – it was meant as a call to fellow SF practitioners to get interested in PP and science. Not as a whole field (the “does not need to, but might” was meant as a cop out for practitioners not very interested in science); but I believe in the business field we need some sort of rationale when talking about what we do.

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