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 –>

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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Solution-focused vs. problem-focused coaching questions

Problem talk creates problems. Solution talk creates solutions. – Steve de Shazer (1940-2005)

This being the Holiday Season, I would like to share with you a great gift that Anthony M. Grant and Sean A. O’Connor gave to the Solution-Focused Coaching community this year: a pilot study of “the differential effects of problem-focus and solution-focused coaching questions”.

From the abstract:

Findings – Both the problem-focused and the solution-focused conditions are effective at enhancing goal approach. However, the solution-focused group experience significantly greater increases in goal approach compared with the problem-focused group. Problem-focused questions reduce negative affect and increase self-efficacy but do not increase understanding of the nature of the problem or enhance positive affect. The solution-focused approach increases positive affect, decreases negative affect, increases self-efficacy as well as increasing participants’ insight and understanding of the nature of the problem.

And from the Summary:

Problem-focused questions reduced negative affect and increased self-efficacy. However, the solution-focused questions were overall more effective, providing the same benefits as the problem-focused condition while also increasing positive affect and participants’ understanding of the nature of the problem. Overall it seems that while both problem-focused and solution-focused questions are effective, generally, solution-focused coaching questions are more effective than problem-focused questions. [my emphasis]

Thank you Anthony and Shean!!

The differential effects of solution-focused and problem-focused coaching questions: a pilot study with implications for practice by Anthony M. Grant and Sean A. O’Connor, in: “Industrial and Commercial Training”, vol. 42, No.2, 2010, pp.102-111.

How Pleasure Works


Yale psychologist Paul Bloom gave us a book about pleasure that is a pleasure to read.
Though it is basically a pop-psych book, it reads almost like a collection of short stories – each one with the aim of illustrating from different angles what the nature of pleasure is, each one solidly grounded in psychology or neuroscience.

In the author’s view, human pleasures are universal and are not culturally determined: “we start off with a fixed list of pleasures and we cannot add to the list.” When we derive pleasure from new technologies or cultural habits, it is because they connect to pleasures that humans already possess.

However, most of these hardwired pleasures are not adaptations, but rather are by-products of mental systems evolved for other purposes.

For example, we can get a kick out of coffee, but this is not because “coffee lovers of the past had more offspring than coffee hater” – it is because we like to be stimulated, and coffee is a stimulant.

This is just the starting point for Paul Bloom – the book itself is a journey through the pleasures of food, of sex and love, of collecting objects, of art, of imagination, of sport, of science, of religion. In each entertaining chapter the author argues for his main claim: that “the pleasure we get from many things and activities is based in part on what we see as their essences”.

In other words pleasure is grounded in our BELIEFS about the deeper nature of a given thing – even our sensations are always colored by our beliefs.

That is why an original Picasso is worth a lot of money, but a perfectly executed replica is not. That is why sexual pleasure is not merely a matter of sensations, but it is also rooted in beliefs about who someone really is and what someone really is – as illustrated by the use of bedtricks in plays and fiction, and by our preference for partners that are faithful, smart and kind. That is why how we think about food and drink affects how we judge it – orange juice tastes better if it is bright orange, yogurt and ice cream are more flavorful if described as “full fat”, and experts rate highly the same Bordeaux if it is described as “grand cru classe” but not if it is labeled “vin du table”.

I found particularly interesting the chapter dedicated to imagination, where the author develops a very tight explanation of how imagination arose in evolution and why now we take so much pleasure in it – from daydreaming to playing videogames.

I was also intrigued by philosopher Tamar Gendler’s notion of alief, introduced by the author in that very same chapter regarding imagination.

While beliefs are attitudes that we hold in response to how things are, alief are more primitive – they are responses to how things seem.

Psychologist Paul Rozin found that “people often refuse to drink soup from a brand-new bedpan, eat fudge shaped like feces, or put an empty gun to their head and pull the trigger. Gendler notes that the beliefs here are: the bedpan is clean, the fudge is fudge, the gun is empty. But the aliefs are stupider, screaming, “dangerous object! Stay away!” (p.169).

In Bloom’s essentialist framework, even science and religion can be seen as an obvious source of pleasure – even though they are very different, both science and religion share the basic assumption that there is a deeper reality that has significance. Science can tell us about it, religion provides tools to experience that reality.

Our essentialist nature appears in us as infants, as research carried out by the author and others has demonstrated. With science and religion we come full circle: essentialist properties are attributed to the very fabric of the Universe – and in this insight I, as a reader, took a great pleasure.

The Dunning-Kruger Effect


The Dunning-Kruger Effect: people with low levels of ability in a certain field vastly over-rate their talents because they lack the skills to judge their own competence (definition from Mind Hacks Blog).

I see it all the time in trainings: Workshop participants learn something. They get the hang of, say, how to lead a motivational interview, and then I watch in horror as, all of a sudden, they go about touting their skills and marketing themselves as professional interviewers.

This is another reason why I like Solution-Focused practice.
Of course the Dunning-Kruger Effect is still lurking in the background when I lead the Solutionsurfers Training Program for Brief Coaches.
However, as part of the program and inherent in the SF practice itself, lots and lots of positive and specific behavioral feedback is given.
Participants quickly learn to observe details and little cues: what did I say exactly? How did clients respond to that? What did they do specifically? What did they say, and so on.
Trainees are taught to observe, observe and observe, paying close attention to behavioral cues and nuances in the interactions.
They are taught to share those observations with other participants.
They are also taught to think about what they would do differently, if they had the chance to have the same coaching interaction again.

This is a powerful way of defusing the Dunning-Kruger Effect. Granted, it takes time. But I know of no other way,

Our job as trainers is to bring our students quickly to the “other side” of the Dunning-Kruger Effect where improving people’s skills reduces their self-assessment as they also learn to judge their ability level more accurately (again in the words of Mind Hacks Blog).

Paradoxically, then, a trainer does a good job if, at the end of a training program, (on a scale from 1 to 10), the trainees rate their skill levels at a 6, 7 or an 8, rather than at a 10. it means they are being realistic and it means they appreciate the difficulties involved in the skill-set taught. Experience will move the trainees forward on their proficiency scale!

For more thoughts on the issue, check out Coert Visser’s posting.