Solution-focused Coaching is a way of having a conversation. It is simple, not easy. In solution-focused conversation, you will not find any magical formulas or special techniques. Still, when applied diligently, the solution-focused approach has the potential to change the lives of our clients in a very short timespan.
Where did it start?
In 1986 in Milwaukee at the Brief Family Therapy Center, there was a group of therapists that challenged everything that was so far known about the therapeutic work. The team was led by Steve de Shazer and Insoo Kim Berg. Their new radical approach was based on knowledge coming from many different sources including family therapy, the hypnotherapy performed by Milton Erickson, Buddhism, and the philosophy of Ludwig Wittgenstein. (Iveson et al., 2012)
The traditional therapist believed that understanding of the client’s problem was indeed essential to the potential of the therapeutic process. The traditional role of the therapist was to analyze the problem and come up with a solution for the client. Therefore the problem talk was important, as it enabled the therapist to gather information.
The Milwaukee team challenged these traditional ideas as they proposed a different approach. An approach where the therapist is not viewed as an expert but as a partner. This broke down the original hierarchy that was present during a therapeutic session, where the client was in the therapy to receive expert advice to her problem. It got rid of the requirement that the client has to trust the therapist that she has the right methods.
The core tenets of the solution-focused approach are:
- Look for resources rather than deficits
- Explore possible and preferred futures
- Explore what is already contributing to those futures
- Treat clients as the experts in all aspects of their lives
(Iveson et al., 2012)
From therapy to coaching
The shift from therapy to coaching was natural. People were coming to therapeutic conversations, work is a huge part of everyone’s life, so the solution-focused approach was applied in the same manner, just the topics would differ. The therapist would not distinguish between life and work topics.
Another reason why the solution-focused approach made its way to coaching was that practitioners were gradually seeing more opportunities to apply the basic tenets in other areas, especially in management. Staff supervision and employee development was a great fit.
Coaching proved to be useful in developing staff and companies simply realized that taking care of their employee’s development is necessary.
The fact that coaching has progressed into so many fields, life coaching, couple coaching, parent coaching, health coaching, etc. is clear evidence of its success. When you hear someone saying that he is going to therapy, what are your first thoughts? I guess it’s problems, limitations, failure. Even though I would never agree to this and I think that therapy is a great tool towards moving forward, I also believe that therapy is very stigmatized. In the end, not many people would proudly publish a post on their social media that they have finally made it to therapy with their partner.
Coaching means progress
Thinking about coaching, saying that you have a coach sounds way different. Coaching as it focuses on the future, not on the past is naturally associated with progress, possibilities, and development. Therefore coaching acquired a sense of prestige, that it is something that people who really want to work on themselves do. In the end, I see no difference if a person has improved their leadership skills or if she overcame a depression. In both cases, it required effort, discipline, and strength.
Therapists will usually ask at the beginning something like “What brings you here”? which is an invitation to describe the client’s history, problems, and past. Whereas a coach might ask “What would you like to achieve as a result of our cooperation?” This difference might be subtle but it is a beginning that determines the track of the conversation.
Solution-focused Coaching or Solution-focused Therapy
Iveson et al. 2012 when explaining the differences between Solution-focused Coaching and Solution-focused therapy said that “there is no question that might be asked in a coaching session that would not be equally at home in a therapy session and vice versa.” This, of course, applies just to the solution-focused coaching and its therapeutic counterpart.
The biggest difference does not lie in the approach or questions we might observe in the session but rather in the answers. A client who seeks coaching might aim to achieve a positive outcome. A client seeking therapy might be looking to eradicate a negative outcome. Below you can find a sample conversation that illustrates what is meant by this.
Joe is a senior manager in a multinational company
Coach: What are your best hopes from our conversation today?
Joe: I would like to improve the efficiency of my team, there were some setbacks recently.
Cindy is a mother of two sons on a maternity leave
Solution-focused therapist: What are your best hopes from our conversation today?
Cindy: I would like to get rid of the fights between me and the boys.
Solution-focused therapist: So what would you like to have instead?
Cindy: I would like to have some kind of harmony between us.
The “instead question”
In a regular conversation, we do not pay much attention if the statements are positive or negative. When a friend tells us that she does not want to argue with her boyfriend we naturally keep talking and assume that she wants to have some kind of improvement in her relationship. In solution-focused conversation, this is very different. A solution-focused practitioner will pay attention to every negative statement and skillfully ask the client what is it, that is wanted instead of the negative outcome. “What would you like to have instead?” is the easiest way to help clients express what is desired instead of what is not wanted.
Solution-focus is positive
Solution-focus is indeed a positive approach. Still, this means something different than most of the people assume. Solution-focus is positive in a mathematical sense. We want to define things that are present rather than define things that are absent. Solution-focus is not a “just look on the brighter side of the things” approach.
Reasons to be positive in our conversations
The main reason to have our conversations positive, stating things that are rather than those that are not, is connected to the core of the solution-focused approach, the preferred future. We want to invite our clients to express as many details about the preferred future, we do not invite clients to analyze the past nor the problem. It becomes almost impossible to create any description by stating things in negative. Just imagine that you take a taxi and tell the driver: “I do not want to go to the airport!”, the driver would be confused.
While it is not usual that someone would give such a direction to a taxi driver, it is very usual in coaching conversations. I hear very often clients saying that they do not want this job, this manager, this team etc. This is a valuable start of a conversation but not a valuable end. It is impossible to describe where we want to go by describing where we do not want to go, there are so many options.
A simple way to help the client describe what is wanted is to ask a question “What would you like to have instead?”, this invites the client to flip the negative statement into a positive one. One might say, that this is just a detail and a waste of time, in fact, just asking this question the client starts a valuable process of defining her preferred future. One might realize what she wants and this might be very surprising to us.
Conflicts with neighbors
I still remember coaching one manager who was having conflicts with his neighbors during the coronavirus home office times. As an experienced coach, I have not created any assumption about what he might need and I asked him what it is that he would like to have instead. He stopped for a moment and then said that what he would like is to focus on his things. This was nowhere close to the initial problem statement. My next question was “When was the last time you did focus on your things?”, the manager started thinking and in a couple of minutes came up with his solution to this situation.
Trusting the client
Is the coach a supervisor that checks regularly on the client? Definitely not. I cannot count how many times I have been asked this question. Whatever the client decides to do in between the sessions is the client’s business. I have also observed junior coaches to tell the client that they will check on them if they have done the necessary steps. There are a couple of problems with this approach.
The client and the coach are partners. This is the core of solution-focused practice. If you are checking on a client and trying to make the client to do something, you are not a partner, you are more like a teacher or a parent which is definitely a hierarchical relation not suitable for coaching. The other thing is that the more excited the coach will be for the change the less excited will be the client, in coaching relationship we want to leave as much ownership and responsibility as possible. This includes ownership of what topics will be discussed but also ownership of the whole process. Asking the client what does she want to discuss next, how does she want to continue our talk are just some of the possible ways to partner and give the client a say over the process.
Trust the client, believe that the client makes the best choices available. If the client will see some actions that will lead her to her preferred future, she will do them. These actions do not need to be specifically those that came up during the coaching conversation. That is perfectly fine, all we care about is the client’s improvements, not adhering to some steps.
Does it really work?
Yes, it does. Solution-focused conversations when done proficiently can sound pretty simple. Solution-focus is indeed simple but it is not easy. Having a decent solution-focused conversation requires intense training and practice. Just keep in mind that the solution-focused model has been developed with clients facing major life and future threatening problems: suicidal depression, drug addiction, school exclusion, family breakdown and has been as successful as any other model. (Iveson et al., 2012)
- Iveson, C., George, E., & Ratner, H. (2012). Brief Coaching: A Solution Focused Approach. Routledge.
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