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Using a solution focus approach

A 'solution focus' approach has much to offer those interested in Positive Psychology. Here we outline the history and key ideas behind solution focus as well as some suggestions for how it can be applied.

 A short history of 'solution focus'

Over 20 years ago in Milwaukee, USA, therapists including Steve de Shazer and colleagues developed 'solution focused' ideas in clinical work. Solution focus is often described synonymously with 'brief therapy'. Its credibility as a valid and effective methodology in clinical working has been well documented, despite the implied brevity of the process. De Shazer's research indicted that it was not the number of sessions in clinical practice that determined when positive change started, rather it was the point at which the client took control and bought into the idea of change. Solution focused practice developed as a result of this research and is now seen to underpin practice in a wide range of settings (health, education, business etc). Appreciative inquiry can be seen as a related development, applying a solution focus approach to academic (action research), organisational and corporate settings, where positive change is sought. The main aim here is to explain the thinking, and techniques behind the solution focus approach, no matter where it is applied. 

What makes the solution focus approach different is, in part, its applicability to such a wide range of settings.  It can be seen as a strategy that is utilised in individual, group or family therapy, but equally it can be used as a consultation process with organisations/teams, staff appraisal, management and leadership training etc. It can be used by people with a multitude of different backgrounds and training and has the capacity to be adapted to enhance existing ways of thinking and working. 

What is solution focused thinking?

The ideas at the heart of solution focused practice are remarkably simple, straightforward and pragmatic. Yet these ideas have repeatedly demonstrated their powerful capacity to resolve difficulties and build potential. Solution focus practice assumes that change and development is always achieved by people drawing on their individual/collective resources. The approach is therefore radically competency-based. It is about talking and thinking in a way that invites people to notice and name their own resources and strengths. The latter may not seem useful with some people yet experience of working with the most disengaged young people, pressured and stressed staff and organisations undergoing rapid change, has evidenced the value of such an approach. Its aims and methodology are perfectly compatible with those developed in Positive Psychology. 

Solution focus practice is future-focused. It generates detailed pictures of the preferred future based on the best hopes and ambitions of clients, leaders, team-members and key stakeholders in organisational life. Such images motivate and inspire people to take action.

Solution focused practice concentrates on everything that is already being done that is moving, or has the potential, to move in the direction of the preferred future. Motivation comes from focusing on doing what works, rather than dwelling on what does not. In effect, it raises awareness of relative success and encourages the lessons of progress to be learnt. 

There is a basic and profoundly simple premise in solution focus that if what you are doing works, do more of it and if it does not, do something different. The assumption is that the seeds for positive change lie in the individual who may need help to engage their personal resources, but in essence this is the way forward. Small change can bring about greater improvement in time and across settings. The ripple theory sums up nicely the idea of a small action (one pebble cast) resulting in widespread change (a loch filling with ripples). Change is constant - one small change can lead to many other positive changes and can affect other areas of a person's life.

Using solution focus thinking, problems are acknowledged, however the assumption is that it is the problem which is the problem, not the person! Given the emphasis in this work on the future, there is a balance to be struck between validating the experience but not focusing on the problem. The aim is to validate the view that the person has a problem rather than the idea that the person is the problem. 

Often a client can be pessimistic about the possibility of change and no longer able to imagine life without the problem. When you ask a client to describe a problem-free future, it is helpful to suggest the idea that there will be a time when the problem is solved. The very act of describing the solution seems to make it more achievable. This can take the form of a projection into the future, when the problem has ceased to exist and this new context can be explored. This technique is often called the Miracle Question. 

What is the link between solution focused thinking and confidence?

Solution focused practice is associated with the development of confidence in the sense of  improved personal agency. In this way, individuals can be empowered to change, as can teams, in which members are supportive and appreciative of each other's contribution. The underlying assumption is that confidence for the future can be securely based on the achievements of the past. This is the at the core of appreciative inquiry, solution focus and brief therapy.

Solution focus thinking steers us to consider times when relative success was experienced, when problems were less evident or not present at all. It also encourages a focus on resilience, coping, personal resources and personal thinking as well as behaviour that is positive. Taken together this focus generates positive emotions that counter those negative thoughts associated with lack of success. Ideally this approach influences our thought patterns and has the capacity to lift a down mood and give us hope and positive expectation. 

Solution focus thinking can be self applied, although it is particularly helpful when used to support others to get out of being stuck in thought patterns that are unproductive and even self destructive. It aims to promote a sense of autonomy and empowerment, where decisions to act come from the personal perspective, based upon a reframing of a problem.

What are the elements of solution focused thinking?
The main elements include:

  1. language for change
  2. positive exceptions
  3. scaling
  4. goal setting
  5. resource building.

On balance, a solution focused approach should include all the elements above, but more importantly individuals must feel comfortable with them and adapt them into their repertoire. Once these techniques are acquired, the flexibility of the approach allows individuals to adapt and tailor them to suit the specific situation. However you will always recognise the use of solution focus thinking in others, once you have started to apply it yourself.

When training staff across agencies that support the most disengaged and disaffected clients, it soon becomes apparent that regardless of discipline and background training, the learning of solution focus strategies has added value to existing ways of engaging clients. The critical benefit is the ability it gives to increase one's professional capacity to empower a client to take control and plan goals for themselves.

1. Language for change 

Language can be used to negotiate a different narrative, a different mind-set that includes greater confidence. Many people who lack a sense of agency, blame themselves and experience self-imposed limitations; they can blame others and feel disempowered; they can feel a sense of lacking accountability and generally see a lack of opportunity.

Solution focus thinking seeks to challenge such perceptions (albeit acknowledging real life issues) and to helpfully reframe through a gradual process of questioning and reflection. This includes skilled questions and comments that explore the mind-set of a client, softy challenging the absolute nature of negative assertions and helping to perceive an alternative future. For example, this may mean using pre-suppositional language - 'When you will be ' rather than, 'If you' - producing an expectancy of change rather than accepting a stuck state.

2. Positive exceptions

Solution focus thinking assumes that there are almost always exceptions to a problem. Finding exceptions to the problem is important, as such exceptions challenge the client's view of the power and pervasiveness of the problem. Exploration of exceptions can provide possible solution pathways. Solutions can be found by examining the differences between times when the problem has occurred and times when it has not, or when it happened less. Clients often simply need to do more of what is already working for the problem to reduce.

Another aspect of this technique is to get people reflecting upon other areas of competence, for example maintaining one's roles as a parent, despite experiencing problems at work. Searching for any past successes that challenge current negative focus, can also help to reframe thinking. Once identified, positive exceptions can help increase a sense of personal agency and coping skills, inviting the client to build a new view of themselves. For example, 'What was it about you that helped you to do that?'

Reflecting on other people's perspectives can also be helpful (e.g. What would your colleagues/ family members notice?) and can make it easier for clients to think about themselves, especially if they are not used to complimenting themselves.

3. Scaling 

Scaling is the most easily applied strategy within a solution focus approach. Those working to support vulnerable young school leavers and young adults disengaged from the world of education, employment or training, quickly see the power and effectiveness of this technique.  The technique simply involves asking for a response to the following type of question:

'On a scale of 0-10 when 0 is the worst things could ever be and 10 is the best things could ever be, where are you just now?'

The poles of the scale will differ according to the individual and their context; it may be on confidence, self-esteem, commitment or relationships. Indeed the value of the strategy is that it can be personalised infinitely.

In answering, the client makes a judgement, which can be used to reflect upon relative successes as well as current problems. Scaling can be used to make an initial 'assessment' to make relative judgements and to check progress on distance travelled. This technique is also helpful in opening up discussion around a specific issue or to reflect on underlying feelings in an exploratory manner. 

4. Goal setting 

When working with clients in a solution focus approach, it is useful to begin to establish their goals as early as possible. The following summary of current research goes some way to suggest why.

The British clinical psychologist, Dr William Kuyken in his writings on memory and depression, highlights the current view amongst research psychologists that working goals influence how 'autobiographical' memory is stored and accessed - so out thoughts relate to ongoing goals including our perception of past outcomes. What this means is that when we formulate a goal, it will be in the context of our past related experience and associated success (or not). Our confidence is, therefore, underpinned by these memories. A mind-set of 'it worked fine last time' as opposed to, 'I make awful mistakes' reflects different orientations that can result in significantly different outcomes. What's more the way one remembers is influenced by the current goals you may have. For example, you may 'remember' your part in something in the light of what happened subsequently and what you now plan to do. This reshaping of past experience represents a dynamic process of how we think and potentially offers opportunity to look for more positive change.

So the goals we have in the light of past experience, are key to change; this cyclical process of self-perception based upon goals and sense of agency is unsurprising perhaps, but worth taking control of, as it can be to our advantage. This type of self-perception is a 'meta cognition', and it allows us to stand back and objectify experience in order to make a positive change. This leads us to consider goals and their functions.

Confidence includes having goals, based upon the positive assumption that you have the capacity to achieve them. Goals help us to focus on an image of what we hope or want to achieve - seeing yourself fitting particular clothes, picturing yourself in a new relationship, house or job, for example. 

Homing in on the detail of your role/action in an issue that concerns you ('I need to'), is a useful strategy to challenge broader thought patterns that may pervade (e.g. 'I always get stuck') and to focus on potential change.
However, some people find it difficult to just switch to see a positive future, as their focus may be set on a future that has not changed for the better. If someone has lacked opportunity or success at school, college or in work, then it is natural to focus on the down-side of experience. As was already suggested in the overview section of Positive Psychology, the brain tends to prioritize negative information. This means we have a tendency to remember an experience if it was negatively charged - for example, that meeting when my view did not get listened to or accepted; that time when someone was unpleasant to me. Such experience may well overrule the overall reality, that on balance you did better than you remember, or the fact that there were some positive outcomes. It is often a matter of correcting such distortion by reviewing the detail of where you did well, for example in responding to another's initiative, or in reaching a consensus after heated debate. 

Focusing on what went well may well help maintain a cognitive style that challenges negative assumptions ('I make awful mistakes'). Also it will generate positive emotions to do with success, achievement or enjoyment. (See Optimism overview for further discussion of relevant themes as well as other tools, tips and techniques in that section.)

A major priority in solution focus work is to encourage the client to formulate goals that are meaningful. Linking goals to specific tasks connects reflection with actual behaviour. These will differ according to the individual and their context, but they include: 

Observational tasks

This involves asking the client to look out for times that they notice things going well. 
Using information from scaling questions
For instance if a client feels that they are at `2' and discussion has ensued about what things will be like at `3', the task might be to look out for times that they are at `3' and notice what is happening at these times.

Pretend tasks
This may involve asking the client to 'pretend' that the solution has happened, or that they have attained a higher point on the scale. Then the consequent experience can be reported on and lessons learned and discussed
Behavioural tasks 
These can be used if the client appears very well motivated. In these tasks the client is asked to 'practise' particular steps which have been identified.

5. Resource building

This involves feeding back to the client any observations you have of their strengths and personal resources, as well as any positive actions they have already taken.

This feedback may be made throughout the interview or may be given after a short break during which a feedback message is compiled.  Some people like to receive such positive feedback in a written form to reflect upon over time.

Ongoing discussion with a client can reflect upon change, positive exceptions, can use scaling and lead to further goals. The overall aim in positive reflecting and problem solving, is to enhance personal resilience and self esteem, self regulation of emotions and bring about an upward spiral of confidence. 

Copyright: Cyril Hellier, 2006

Dr Cyril Hellier is post school Psychological Services Strategic Officer, working as part of the Transitions to Post School Team in the Life Long Learning Department of the Scottish Executive. He has extensive experience of working with children, young people, families and agency staff across local authorities and beyond. He has worked as a practising psychologist in Scotland, Canada and Australia.

His current remit is Scotland wide supporting the development of local authority psychological services to the 16 to 24 year old age group, as well as offering direct psychological services with his colleague Ron Crichton to key stakeholders nationally, in the post school sector. This includes Careers Scotland, Colleges Scotland, Scottish Enterprise and Get Ready for Work training providers, supporting policy development eg on assessment as well as skill development for staff and organisations at all levels. He is committed to solution focused methods, appreciative inquiry and the application of video reflection to promote individual and group development.

He has a history of publication, is  Fellow of the British Psychological Society and thrives on innovation and development - he also sings Barbershop in the B Sharps!

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