We think we are open-minded. We assume we see all perspectives on an issue in a balanced, fair and Solution-Focused way. However research by Herbert Simon shows this not to be true. Our capacity to think freely is always bound by what we already know. And new ideas push us into the realm of resistance to change.
And we usually have a more negative view of others than we care to admit. Chris Argyris showed how we all attribute negative thinking to others in a difficult conversation, even when we set out to be positive.
It gets worse.
We tend to think negatively about other people’s inputs and ideas. When others prosper we say it was due to the environment in which they operate. When we prosper congratulate ourselves on our brilliance. When others fail they ‘screwed up’. When we fail we blame the environment. This is so widespread that psychologists call it the ‘fundamental attribution error’.
So how are we ever to make headway?
Structure your dialogue around a Solution-Focused mindset
Well there is a structured approach to dialogue that is future-focused, goal-directed, and focuses on solutions rather than on the problems. The approach has emerged from Solution-Focused Brief Therapy and includes the following precepts:
- A problem is always an opportunity to think about better ways of being and doing.
- In every problem situation there is something that is working well, even in the smallest way.
- Focussing on what is working and deliberating on solutions elevates the thinking of individuals and groups.
- The solution really doesn’t care about the problem!
- Solutions are impossible to see from a problem perspective.
- When you build a rich, compelling view of a positive future and work back from there, many solutions present themselves.
In Solution-Focused dialogue, the coach shifts the focus of conversation to what the client wants to achieve. Together they create a picture of an ideal future. The coach steers the conversation away from the problems of the past even though these problems prompted the call for assistance.
Solution-Focused Coaching has become a major influence in business, social policy, education, criminal justice services, child welfare and the treatment of offenders in domestic violence. The focus on solutions is practical, goal-driven and inspires clear, concise, realistic dialogue. In the solution-focused approach all clients are assumed to have some knowledge of what would make their situation better. Everyone seeking help already possesses at least the minimal skills necessary to create solutions. Of course everyone seeking help may need some (at times, considerable) help to describe the details of their better life.
Key Solution-Focused Concepts and Tools
All therapy is a form of specialised conversation. Solution-Focused conversation is directed toward developing and achieving the client’s vision of solutions. The Solution-Focused Coach may use any of the following techniques to clarify solutions and the actions to achieve them:
- Look for previous solutions. Often the way a client solved problems in the past can be applied to their current problems. At least the creativity and courage apply.
- Look for positive exceptions. Take your eyes off the problem. Focus on small yet significant events and try to understand how the exception arose and how to repeat it.
- Ask present and future-focused questions. Focus on what is working, and how the client would like the future to be, rather than on the past and the origin of problems.
- Offer compliments. Validating what the client is doing well and acknowledging the magnitude of their difficulties encourages the client to embrace change and to act.
- Invite clients to do more of what is working. Gently nudging the client to do more of what has previously worked may provide heartening results.
- Ask a Miracle Question. This is a powerful way for clients to picture what they really want.
I work with so many clients who are battling and know they can improve. And they are working so hard.
When I ask them what the future looks like they can’t tell me. Or they have a carefully crafted vision statement that really engages no one’s spirit. In our response to a miracle question we take a journey into our own ideal future. We describe what we see. The emerging picture is ours.
And here is a hot hint: Describing an ideal future in the framework of strategy map provides an incredibly rich picture of this ideal future.
- Ask Scaling Questions. Scaling questions can be used in helping clients to assess their own situations, track their own progress, or evaluate how others might rate them on a scale of 0 to 10. It is used in many ways.
- Ask Coping Questions. This question is a powerful reminder that all clients engage in many useful things even in times of overwhelming difficulties.
- Consultation Break and Invitation to Add Further Information. It is useful to take a brief consultation break during each session to reflect on what has occurred in the session. Some time prior to the break, the client is asked “Is there anything that I did not ask that you think it would be important for me to know?”
A typical Solution-Focused work-session
A typical session may include the following steps
Define hot topics
The team work in small groups to define the core topics that need to be discussed. There are various ways to stimulate these discussions.
Briefly describe the problem
Our natural inclination in teams is to spend significant time defining the problem to understand the causes of the problem in great detail. This would be OK if we were able to stick with understanding root causes. However, unless we use a structured root-cause analysis process we are likely to drift into judging and blaming. A far better approach is to agree a description and scope of the problems and then to move as soon as possible into the Solution-Focused toolset. As counter-intuitive as this seems, problem discussion serves only to entrench problem thinking.
And ultimately remember: The solution does not care about the problem.
Define the positive future
The members work together to build a composite view of a positive future. Again there are a number of absorbing exercises to engage the participants in the dialogue to build a compelling view of the possible future.
The participants discuss how close to the positive future position they are, on a scale of 1 to 10 where ‘10’ represents the ideal. Once they have agreed a number, they have a discussion, NOT about why they are not at ‘10’, which is our natural tendency. They discuss what they are doing right that has enabled them to reach the number they have agreed. Even if this number is ‘0.1’ the discussion is energising and positive and builds a positive view of the abilities they carry in the group.
The team then discuss the actions they need to take in order to move just one step closer to 10. This can trigger planning in a natural and energising way.
I am learning to appreciate more and more when the most simple approaches turn out to be both the most profound and provide the highest impact. And this is usually because the “simplicity” they project is often a little be deceptive. Solution-Focused Dialogue is like this. This short note covers all you need to know, until you try to implement this. But again – it really is not that hard to get it right either. Here is a note on how solution focused conversation may be used in team building sessions and another on Solution-Focused Coaching.