What if vs. what is: why Solution Focused approach isn’t about the positive

Dear reader,

nowadays you may come across many tips, strategies and theories that are solution-focused, future oriented and try to emphasise the positive, like:

  • positive affirmations
  • visualisation
  • CBT
  • NLP
  • positive psychology
  • growth mindset
  • etc.

What these approaches all have in common is, that they steer away from looking for what’s wrong and instead focus on the opposite: what’s working, positive, what’s wanted, etc. If taking for example, they are focusing on what if (your life was XXX – insert the preferred term). We have got quite some evidence showing that for instance, expressing gratitude, writing letters of appreciation, practising positivity and the like tasks, bring about fruitful results. And we also have evidence that in many cases these results do not last.

I do not wish to go into the discussion and critique other approaches. But I do wish to draw the line of what makes Solution Focused approach different to other solution and future oriented approaches. So here are a few of my arguments:

  • Solution Focused is not about solutions. It is about the solution context, as Evan George from BRIEF likes to say. Which makes SF not interested in concrete action, steps, which in many cases do not happen for various reasons. It is instead interested in signs. Which are always present, regardless of the action.
  • Solution Focused is about preferred future. It stays close to the description of the client’s future, therefore we do not insert any adjectives such as positive, better, grand, fulfilling, etc. We simply call it “preferred”, which means that our clients define what preferred is. Thus we are not emphasising the positives. Which brings me to:
  • Solution Focused is not about the positive. It is about what is wanted and what is working. For instance, if a client whose partner died tragically in an accident, for such client the term “positive” may not suit, as it is overly ambitious and all in all, not suitable. Still, they may want to find comfort, peace or just time to pause and deal with grief and loss. Many people do not live lives that enable them to even think about positive. This does not mean that they have stopped living, though some of them might have tried to end their lives.
  • Solution Focused has no agenda of what is working. The previously mentioned evidence which shows correlation of certain tasks with desired change, is left aside in SF approach. Simply because it comes from research and thus leaves a possibility that it might not work for our client. Instead, we believe that our clients are capable of designing their own strategies of what is working for them and more, they already have the skills and resources to follow these strategies if they choose to do so. Oddly, SF research shows, that when the practitioner lets go of their own agenda, their willingness to offer useful tips and advice as well as let go of being interested in what clients will do after the session, clients’ progress towards change happens faster. Thus, tasks are not necessary and may even be a burden to change.
  • Solution Focused is not following “fake it till you make it” rule. Yes, it does work with the “what if” concept, but it rather brings it into description of “what is”. Therefore, it does not require effort to pretend the “what if”, instead it invites our clients to notice the “what if” into “what is”. Again, emphasis is on working with concepts and descriptions our clients give us – not what we think they might need or want.

This may sound simple. And it is. There is no grand theory or vast knowledge in the practitioner’s purse and backpack. Instead they come into the conversation as a blank page and try not to read between the lines, either trying to figure out what the client “really” wants and “really” says. But this is far from easy. Whenever I train professionals in SF, they say after trying out a couple of exercises, that this is the hardest part. I couldn’t agree more. And this makes a profound distinction comparing SF to any other approach, even though the core interest and focus may be the same. But SF’s viewpoint and paradigm make it very, very unique. Which in my opinion allows it to be effective with people, who find themselves in all sort of life situations, across cultures and with different levels of motivation or abilities to make change happen.

This autumn, I will be going new places to teach Solution Focused Brief Therapy: Georgia in September, Greece in October and India in December. I cannot wait to meet new professionals, explore SF with them and share my passion.

Biba

IMG_8136

A poster I often use in my trainings. Everybody has preferred future – but it makes a big difference who defines it and how.

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