October 14, 2022
This week I came across the following quote by Simon Western: “The solution-focused approach, by refusing to talk about problems, uses the signifier ‘solution’ as a substitute for the word ‘problem’, thereby drawing more attention to the unspeakable word. (Western, Simon. Coaching and Mentoring : A Critical Text, SAGE Publications, Limited, 2012 p.6) Western continues by likening this to the Fawlty towers episode in which John Cleese serves a group of Germans while continuously reminding himself “don’t mention the war” and, of course, by focusing on “not mentioning the war”, constantly mentions it.
Of course, there are now many versions of Solution Focused practice and I do recall sitting in training sessions where the Solution Focused trainer was adamant that we don’t have to talk about the problem. I think I have even said this in trainings myself. The dominant narrative is that you have to “dig deep” and “identify the root cause” before you can move forward. In rejecting this narrative, Solution Focused practitioners and teachers of the approach sometimes go overboard.
Shying away from any discussion of “the problem” in my mind is more “Solution Forced” than Solution Focused. To quote David Nyland and Victor Corsiglia from their article (Nylund, David; Corsiglia, Victor (1994): Becoming Solution-Focused Forced in Brief Therapy: Remembering Something Important We Already Knew. In Journal of Systemic Therapies 13 (1), p. 6) “A solution-forced therapist is one who is informed by the central assumptions of solution-focused therapy. […] The solution-forced therapist, however, often does not adhere to these ideas in practice. In his or her enthusiasm (or impatience) to identify exceptions and facilitate change, the therapist may minimize and even trivialize the client’s experience of the problem. […] To become a solution-forced therapist, one needs to practice […] the following idea[s]: Permit the client only to engage in ‘solution talk.’ Indicate to the client that the problem should not be discussed at all.”
Nylund and Corsiglia wrote their article in 1994 which indicates to me that this is an old (brace yourself here is the word!) problem. It would be interesting to research the positions that current Solution-Focused practitioners and training institutes take on “discussing the problem”. My experience in conversations ranges from “oh, no! that’s problem talk” to “of course, if the client wants to talk about their negative experiences, I will listen respectfully with an ear to discovering what is wanted and what is already going in the right direction”. I distinctly remember Insoo Kim Berg taking the second position.
I try to partner with my clients in my practice (and you can decide if this is “Solution Focused” in your view). When someone wants to talk about hardships they are experiencing, of course, I listen! Sometimes I even ask externalizing questions about the problem, e.g. “what is this problem trying to convince you of?” or “what kind of relationship would you like to have with the problem?” Most often, I will invite the client to explore what they want instead and how that is important to them, what it is they value and believe and how that might shift, what they could experiment with.
This ends up being a very different conversation than one in which the practitioner frantically tries to avoid “mentioning the war problem.”
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