You can SF with all kinds of clients; individuals who come to you for therapy or coaching, couples who come for couple therapy, children and teens who are sent to you for counselling, individuals seeking help for mental health problems, persons recovering from traumatic life experiences, people suffering from severe psychiatric problems… You can use it when you work with families, groups, networks, teams…
For information about how to use SF with a whole class see the video where Insoo Kim Berg speaks about the WOWW (working-on-what-works) program
and also the video where children tell about the Skilful Class project.
Solution-focused conversations can be also be used in workplaces for coaching teams to improve their functioning or helping develop entire organizations. To learn more about programs that I have developed together with Tapani Ahola here in Finland click the links below:
You can also use SF for self-help, or self-development. I have created a website which hosts several solution-focused self-help apps. It can found here:
The principles of SF – rather than the methods – can also be used to supporting your own family members and friends when they are struggling with problems or challenges in their life.
In problem-focused conversations the client and the practitioner typically speak about problems; they devote time to describing problems, understanding them, analysing their causes and exploring obstacles that block the client from changing.
In solution-focused conversations, in contrast, the client and the practitioner typically talk very little about problems or obstacles. They don’t devote time to understanding or analysing problems, or to figuring out how to overcome obstacles to change. Instead, they talk about what changes clients wants to make, what goals they have, how they want their future to look like, what they have already done to move in that direction, and what more they can do to make those desired changes happen.
When clients come to talk to a therapist or coach, they are often under the assumption that they are expected to talk about their problems. Therefore, they often naturally focus on problems and the therapist or coach needs to gently steer the conversation from “problem-talk” to what in SF is sometimes referred to as “solution-talk”, that is, conversations focusing on goals, resources, progress, exceptions, solutions, etc.
To ensure that the conversation acquires a solution-focused “groove” from the get-go, you can, for example, use the following ways to start the conversation.
Don’t start by asking about problems (“What brings you here?”) but by mapping your client’s resources, that is, things they like to do, their passions, special skills they have, their interests, talents etc. Only after you have done this, move on to asking your clients their goals. To interview your clients about their resources you can use, for example, the the Circle method described originally by the Dutch psychologist Arnoud Huibers.
“What progress have you already made?”
“Between the time you made the appointment and now that you are here, have you made some progress?”
“What have you already done that’s worked, even a little?”
When you get some evidence of progress already made you can continue by asking about what signs of progress the client hopes to see next.
“What are your best hopes from this conversation?”
“Suppose this conversation is useful, how will you know?”
“Suppose we have a follow-up meeting and you report that things are going well, what will you tell me about how things are going?”
“Sure. I can understand that you don’t want that. What would you want instead?”
“So, do you mean that instead of [problem or difficulty] you want [goal or skill]?
Once you have drawn up a list of your client’s goals, ask the client to pick up one goal they want to focus on.
You can flexibly choose whichever starting style you want depending on the client, the situation and your own preferences. For example, if a client starts the conversation by talking about some progress that they have recently made, it makes sense to inquire more about the progress they have made and then move on to asking what’s the next progress they would want to make. If on the other hand, you are working with a client who has been sent to you, perhaps you might want to start by “getting to know them” and asking about their resources. And, if you have a client who insists on telling you about their problems, it makes sense to start by helping them convert their problems into goals.
One of the important roles, or jobs, of a solution-focused therapist is to help clients convert their problems into goals. The idea is that behind every problem (undesired state of affairs) there is a goal (desired state of affairs) that the client needs to achieve in order to overcome the problem – and that it is easier to help people achieve goals than to help them solve problems. It is not always easy to figure out what the goal is when you know the problem, but fortunately there are some useful questions that you can use to help your clients make the shift from problems to goals.
For example, you can ask your client to give you an example of a situation that they find difficult or challenging, and once they have done that, you can continue by saying something like,
“And, what skill (or strength, or courage) do you think you need in order to deal with those kinds of situations in a way that would make you feel proud of yourself?”
The combination of these two questions – finding out what situations are difficult and figuring out what skill, or strength the client needs – helps your client shift their thinking from the problem to the competence they need to develop in order to solve their problem, or, at least, to handle it better.
As a rule of thumb, one can say that the goal for an undesired state of affairs is its polar opposite, the corresponding desired state of affairs. For example, the goal for bad habits is a better habit that replaces the bad habit, the goal for fears is a bravery, or courage, that cancels the fear, and the goal for a pattern of undesired behavior in certain situations is a pattern of better behavior in the same situation.
For more ideas of how to convert problems into goals see my blog entitled “How to convert children’s problems into skills they can learn”. Click the link below to access my blog (if you are not already on this page) www.benfurman.com/en/blog
There are a few basic strategies that you can use. First, you can safely assume that everyone want’s something – even if it was getting other people off their back. Once your client tells you what they want (for example, “I want everyone to leave me alone”) you can start to talk with them about that goal, which is, by definition, something they are interested in talking about.
For a short and well-formulated description of this approach, see professor John Murhpy’s answer to the same question in an interview that I have made with him that can be found on my YouTube channel. Click the link below to access the video. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5J_W_NNEmKE&list=PLAVpnwnZWVJKHL9udgTDw8TQa83jVmtpO
Second, you can cut the session short and ask the referring person to join the next meeting. This changes your role drastically; the conversation will be very different when both A (the person who wants the other person to change) and B (the person whose behaviour A wants to change) are simultaneously present in the session with you. Your role is no longer to try to change B but to help A and B negotiate and to find a solution to what A perceives as a problem.
A third possibility is to give up trying to have conversations with B, and to work instead with A, the referring person, and to coach him or her to find better ways to influence B. For example, if you work in a school, rather than working with a difficult student (who is not interested in talking to you), you can talk to the teacher and help him or her find better ways of dealing with the student.
There is a classical question in SF that was originally used to get clients to talk about their preferred future, the miracle question. You can click the link below to see lovely 15 minutes long video on my YouTube channel in which Insoo Kim Berg describes how to ask this question properly.
There are, however, also many other ways to engage your clients in a conversation about their preferred future. You can simply ask your client what are their best hopes for the future, or best hopes from this conversation; you can ask them to imagine that you meet them again in the not too distant future when they are happy with how things are going and ask them to describe what it is that they will be happy with. I have written an article, or a blog with numerous suggestions of how to present clients the preferred future question entitled “Varieties of the miracle question”. Click the link below to find my blog
Solution-focused coaches or therapists are interested in their clients’ resources, which include their passions, things they like, skills they have, special talents they possess, important people in their life etc.
One reason for being interested in client’s resources is simply that such conversations help build a strong alliance between the practitioner and the client. Talking about the client’s resources, or “resource-talk” as it is called in SF, helps to generate a positive connection, or bond between the practitioner and the client. This positive connection strengthens collaboration between the client and the therapist and facilitates the subsequent steps of the conversation.
A second, and perhaps an even more important reason, for exploring the client’s resources, is what in brief therapy is often called “utilization”, or figuring out ways for clients to use their resources to accomplish their goals. For example, if a client has a passion for a particular sport, utilization means helping the client think of a way to use their wisdom and competence related to that sport in solving their problem, or in figuring out how to achieve their goal.
“No man is an island”, the opening line of a poem written by the English poet John Donne in 1624, reminds us that we humans are pack animals, and that we are vastly influenced by, and highly dependent on, the people around us – for good and for bad. In SF other people – family members, friends and meaningful others – are seen as resources, as people who can help and support clients achieve their goals.
Significant others can be utilized in SF practice in many ways. You can use them, for example, when you help your clients to identify their strengths:
“What would your best friend say that you are good at?”
“What do your children appreciate about you?”
You can use significant others in helping your clients define their goals
“Suppose your sister would say at some point in time in the near future, that these conversations have apparently had a positive effect on you, what do you think she would have noticed that would make her say so?”
or in defining and describing small steps of progress:
“Suppose I would call your boss to find out how things are going with you and she would tell me that she feels you have made some small, yet significant progress. I would ask her what she has seen that makes her say so, what do you think she would answer?”
Another important, and perhaps obvious, way to utilize significant others is to help the client think of how she can allow them to help or support her in achieving her goal.
“Who has so far helped or supported you?” “In what way have they done that?” “How can you thank them for doing that?”
“Who else can help or support you in the future?” “In what way can they do that?” “How do you hope you can thank them when you have reached your goal?”
There are several approaches you can use. You can, for example, simply let them talk about their problems, but when they talk you listen to them with what could be called a “solution-focused ear”, that is, by focusing on – and admiring – their coping strategies, their tenacity, determination, patience, values etc. This is what in psychotherapy language is often called “validation”. The coach or therapist says things like “That is a very difficult situation. I wonder how you have been able to cope with this?” or “Where have you found the strengths to deal with this difficult situation?” or “Who has helped you the most and how have they helped you?”
Another approach is to simply interrupt the client kindly. You obviously cannot say “I‘m not interested in your problems because I am a solution-focused coach/therapist”, but you can say “We can talk about that more a little bit later, but I have a few questions that I would like to ask you first if you don’t mind?”
A third option is to listen to your client talking about their problems but instead of asking them to tell more about those problems, or their roots, you persistently help them think about what they want instead. So, when they say that they are depressed, for example, you ask them “Do you mean that you would want to be happier?” or when they say they hate their work, you say, “So do you mean you would want to find a way to enjoy your work or do you mean that you would find another workplace?” You so to say, stick to the idea that “behind every problem there is a goal” or “behind everything we don’t want there is always something that we want instead.”
This is a very common situation in counselling and therapy. People often complain about other people such as their family members, colleagues, or friends. When they do this, you can use the same methods that you would use if they would talk about their own personal problems. You can ask them about how they would want the other person to change if they had the power to change that person. “Suppose you could change him… I know it is not easy to change other people’s behavior, but suppose you would somehow find a way to influence his behavior, how would you want him to change? What would be the first sign of him changing in that direction? Has there been any times when he has been behaving even a little bit more like that? What do you think has caused him to behave like that? Is there something you have done to make that happen? If he would behave a little bit more in the way you would want him to behave, how would you respond to him? What would you say or do? How would he respond to your response? What strategies have you, or someone else, tried that have not worked? What other strategies could you use that might work better?”
Another strategy is to use what could be called the likelihood of change question. “How likely, on a scale from 0 to 10 do you think it is that you will be able to change her behavior?” If the answer is 0, it makes sense to ask the client to suggest another goal for the conversation or to talk to with the client about how they can become better at coping with the person question. If, on the other hand, the client gives a number higher than 0, you can always ask them what gives them that much confidence that the person can change their behavior. Their answer to your question can help you redirect the conversation to the topic of what they could do to influence that person.
There are many ways in which you can help your clients to discover ideas of how to achieve their goals. Useful questions include:
“How have you dealt with similar challenges before in your life?”
“What have you done in the past that has sometimes worked?”
“Have you made some progress recently? What have you done to accomplish that progress?”
“How have other people helped you?”
“Who could help you in the future? What could they do that to help you?”
“Who would you want to consult? What would person would advise you to do?”
“Is there something you have thought about doing, but have not done yet?”
“Suppose you told me next time we meet that you have made progress. I would of course ask you what progress you have made. What do you imagine you would tell me?
During your session with the client you can ask them to envision that you meet them in the future for a follow-up meeting.
“Can you imagine that we meet again, after, say one month?”
When the client says ‘yes’ you say,
“Let’s suppose that when we meet again, I ask you how things are going. You say that things are going better, and that you have made some progress. Can you imagine that?”
When the client says ‘yes’ you say,
“I will become curious and I will ask you what progress you have made. What do you think you will answer?”
And once you have received an answer to that question you ask the client,
“If you say that to me in our follow-up meeting, I would obviously become very curious and I would want to know what it is that you have done to make that change possible. If I would ask you, “How did you do that?” what do you think you would answer?”
The celebration question is a exciting way of helping clients develop ideas of how they might achieve their goal. This question entails asking your client the following sequence of questions,
“What is your goal?”
“Would you be happy if you achieved that goal?”
“Would you be so happy that you would consider celebrating somehow your accomplishment?”
“What would need to happen concretely for you to feel that you have achieved your goal and that you are ready to celebrate?”
“How would you want to celebrate?”
“Who would you invite?”
“How would you invite them? What would be written on the invitation message or letter?”
“Would you give a speech in the event? What would you say?”
“Who would you thank in your speech? What would you thank them for?”
“How do you imagine that your guests would respond? What would they say to you?”
In SF approach therapists do not assume that the client’s current problems are necessarily related to their past experiences, so the therapist does not steer clients to talk about their past. However, if the client wished to talk about what they have been through, the SF therapist will listen and do his or best to facilitate what could be called recovery process. There are many ways in which you can support your clients to recover from their traumatic memories or difficult life experiences. Click the link below to read an article about how to use SF in helping clients recover from challenging life events.
It is important to show interest in following up your client. The client wants to know that you are interested in how things turn out for them. You can, for example, suggest that they come to visit you again for a follow-up meeting, or you can ask them to call you, or send you a message after an agreed upon time.
“I’m curious to know how things develop. Would you agree to send me an email and to give me some feedback, say, in two months from now? Do you mind if we agree on a date when you will write to me to tell me about how things are going – just in case, so you don’t forget?”
I hope these brief answers to common questions about SF have helped you to gain a better understanding of what the SF approach is all about. For more information and ideas of how to use the approach with various types of clients, check out my blog at www.benfurman.com/en/blog or my many videos at www.youtube.com/benfurmantv.