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 –>

“You have a filter that…” – on staying on the surface

You have a filter that makes you see the good in people and so…

The sentence above was said in a simulated Coaching conversation that took place during our recent Solutionsurfers Brief Coach Training.

A student of mine, a seasoned Coach, made that comment as he was role-playing as a Solution-Focused Coach.

The comment was meant as a compliment for the Client, as affirming Client’s strengths.

Yet it felt to me as a piece of chalk screeching on a blackboard.

That comment vividly highlights a key distinction between Solution-Focus and other Coaching models.

Mainstream Coaching models are based on more or less explicit theories about how the mind works and about how change happens.

So, depending on which Coaching school you are training with, you might learn we have “filters” in our minds: or that we have “orientations“; or that each person belongs to a specific “personality type” with a set of characteristics and preferred ways of behaving; you might learn that some people are  inclined to specific “defense mechanisms“, each one with its own dynamic. You might learn people have different ways of “processing information” so you need to tailor your communication in specific ways.  It is very likely you might learn that we have “blocks” or “obstacles” to overcome, “patterns” to defeat. You might also learn that people need “motivation” or more “willpower” – as if they were specific “things” that can be acquired, used and depleted.

All of the above are constructs which have an intriguing explanatory power. They make sense.

They are based on underlying metaphors for understanding the mind: the mind as a computer, the mind as a mechanical (or hydraulic) machine, the mind as a theater of different characters…

Notice that no one ever observed a “filter” in the mind, or a “block” or a form of energy called “willpower” – they are just ways to make sense of how  we think.

I am not saying that they are not scientifically legitimate constructs; some of them might be – all I am saying is that they are constructs, not observable entities.

And in Solution-Focus we stay on the surface. We do not deal with mental constructs.

We encourage Clients to focus on observable behaviors in specific situations; we ask them about events and their context; we ask about what they might notice and what other people might notice.

If a Client wants to have more “willpower” the classical Solution-Focus response would be: “How would you know you have more willpower? What would you be doing differently? What would other people notice you doing differently?…” Everything is brought back to observable behaviors which make a difference.

This is because of the way Solution-Focus was born and was developed: not deduced from a theory but built empirically, inductively, from the bottom-up, by slowly figuring out what worked and what did not work in conversations designed to help Clients.

In Solution-Focus there is no overarching theory about change. We have some tenets, which have been found inductively. We might have different clues about why SF works, but we do not have a coherent theory. That is the unique characteristic of SF, its pride and maybe the main obstacle to a wider diffusion. It is tempting to offer an explanation. It is sexy to have a Model of Change: with neat graphs, diagrams, arrows and fancy names. But in Solution-Focus circles we like to travel light in the realm of assumptions and explanations. We like to stay in the conversation, as it happens, without adding anything.

The student  of mine who was playing the Coachee in this role-play was relating some specific episodes of her life and her positive, upbeat attitude in dealing with them – she never mentioned having “filters”.

That is something the Coach added.

And now the dynamics of the conversation changes. From a Solution-Focused perspective, it becomes more difficult.

Instead of having richness of details, and maybe some seeds of solutions, some useful exceptions, we have a generalization – unique perspectives have been swept under the rug of “filter”.  Useful behaviors already happening have been swallowed by a concept, by a rationalization.

Note that this is a standard approach in other Coaching models: the Client has to learn the theory of the Coach and the language of the Coach; only then, the Client can appreciate and use the “expert solution” handed down by the Coach.

It is not a formal learning, but an implicit learning that Clients go through – with comments like that, Clients learn about “filters”, and “styles” and all sorts of mental constructs.

We do not do that in Solution-Focus.

We do not add anything. We do not have anything to add!

We stay on the surface.

We use the words Clients use and we try to make their meaning explicit, to us and to the Client.

Our intent is not to explain things and offer interpretations (adding stuff); rather, our intent is to help clients see what is there (describing, showing), hoping they find something useful.

So it is the other way around: it is the Coach who has to learn the language of the Client.

Because it is in the Clients’ worldview, expressed in their own words, from their unique perspectives, based on their experiences, where sustainable and long-lasting solutions are found.