What I call ‘solution-focused change’ is an approach to helping people achieve change which is based on solution-focused brief therapy (de Shazer, 1988; Walter & Peller, 1992; De Jong & Berg, 2001; ) and which is now used also in fields like coaching, management and teaching. Solution-focused change can be defined as an approach in which a practitioner, for example a coach or therapist, supports clients by viewing and treating them as unique and competent, being responsive to whatever they say, helping them to visualize the changes they want to achieve and to help them make progress by help them build step-by-step on what they have already been doing that works while meeting non-negotiable demands (Visser, 2010). Well-known solution-focused techniques are scaling questions (de Shazer, 1986), the miracle question (de Shazer, 1988), coping questions (Lipchick, 1988), exception-seeking questions (de Shazer, 1985) and past success questions (de Shazer, 1985).
The important role of assumptions in solution-focused change
Just as important as knowledge of these solution-focused techniques is the set assumptions from which is worked. Technique and assumptions can be seen as the two pedals of a bike. With a bike, you need to push both of the pedals in order to ride the bike. The pedals are interdependent: pushing one pedal will also move the other. The same is the case with solution-focused change’s ‘pedals’. Working from the solution-focused assumption will help you to use the solution-focused techniques more effectively and credibly. Knowledge and skillful use of the techniques will enable you to express your solution-focused assumptions more effectively.
Below is my description of what I see as the most important assumptions behind solution-focused change. This set not only points backwards in the sense that it is based on the solution focused literature; it also tries to point forward in the sense that it incorporates some recent new insights from research and practice. In that sense the set of assumptions is also a proposal. The set contains nine assumptions which are divided into three categories: assumption about people, assumptions about change, and assumptions about helping.
I. Assumptions about people
1) People prefer to choose for themselves what they initiate and they want to control as much as possible what they do
2) People prefer to be competent, view themselves as competent and they are already competent to some extent
3) People want to have and build meaningful and caring relationships with other people and want to do things that make a positive difference to others
Solution-focused assumptions about people are optimistic. Solution-focused practitioners view people as autonomous and competent individuals with a desire to do good. They assume that people tend to follow the constructive path as soon as they see it. It is no coincidence that these assumptions about people resemble the universal basic needs of 1) autonomy, 2) competence, and 3) relatedness which have been identified in Self Determination Theory (Deci & Ryan, 2000). In an earlier article (Visser, 2010) I have argued that the solution-focused approach and Self Determination Theory overlap in their view on people.
II. Assumptions about change
1) There is always already a beginning of the desired situation on which further progress can be built.
2) People change best by taking actions, one step at a time, and reflecting on and responding to the consequences of those actions so that an intelligible pattern eventually starts to form
3) Positive behavior descriptions, both in the future and in the past, irresistibly trigger positive behaviors
Solution-focused change holds the assumption that there is always fluctuation and change happening. This implies that there are always times at which problems are less severe and times at which beginnings of success have already been happening. Because of this there are always already some things going well which can be amplified to build progress in the desired direction. An assumption in solution-focused change is that one should not change more than necessary. Small steps are generally preferred to large steps. They require little energy and motivation and are usually generative of more change. The best way to generate ideas for steps forward is to elicit vivid pictures of positive behaviors. This can be done by asking people to describe desired future behaviors or by asking them about situations in which they have shown positive behaviors in the past. Once a vivid picture of positive behaviors has been created it will become very easy and attractive for people to start performing that behavior (Visser & Schlundt Bodien, 2009).
III. Assumptions about helping
1) Treating clients as cooperative, no matter how resistant they may appear, is the quickest and most promising way to encourage further cooperation
2) Working within the client's frame of reference, without confrontation or blame and without imposing an expert view on the client is the quickest and most promising approach to help the client develop an ever more constructive, realistic and useful perspective
3) Focusing on identifying and amplifying what works, rather than on explanations in terms of personal characteristics and problem causes, is the quickest and most promising way to help clients make progress
Solution-focused change assumes that clients are not resistant to being helped but may resist against the approach taken because they feel it does not fit their situation. When client’s preferences and perceptions are taken very seriously they are most likely to open up more. Solution-focused practitioners will not confront their client but will keep on working with what their clients bring forward. They are very optimistic about the ability of clients to develop an ever more realistic perspective while conversations proceed. Solution-focused practitioners focus not so much on internal states or constructs within the client but instead on the way clients effectively interact with their environment. Solution-focused change’s assumptions about effective helping differ substantially from mainstream therapy’s and coaching’s assumptions. Instead of directly offering advice based on experience and scientific evidence, solution-focused change assumes that clients will benefit more from identifying solutions within their own experience.
A paradox of solution-focused assumptions
A paradox of solution-focused assumptions is that the solution-focused assumptions both seem to precede solution-focused practice and result from them. Effectively practicing the solution-focused approach requires you to work from the solution-focused assumptions. At the same time, effectively practicing the solution-focused approach is likely to change your view on people, change and helping in the direction of the solution-focused assumptions. For example, doing solution-focused conversations well requires a good amount of optimism about people and change but is also likely to gradually make you more optimistic about people and change.
· Deci, E. L. & Ryan, R. M. (2000). The ‘what’ and ‘why’ of goal pursuits: human needs and the self-determination of behavior. Psychological Inquiry, 11, 227–268.
· de Shazer, S. (1985). Keys to Solution in Brief Therapy. New York, NY: W W Norton & Company.
· de Shazer, 1986. An indirect approach to brief therapy. In S. de Shazer & R. Kral (Eds) Indirect Approaches in Therapy.
· de Shazer, S. (1988). Clues: Investigating solutions in brief therapy. New York, NY: W W Norton & Company.
· De Jong, P. & Berg, I.K. (2001). Interviewing for Solutions. Wadsworth Publishing Company.
· Lipchik, E. (1988). Purposeful sequences for beginning the solution-focused interview. In: Lipchik, E. (ed) Interviewing. Aspen, Rockville.
· Visser, C.F. & Schlundt Bodien, G. (2009). Supporting clients’ solution building process by subtly eliciting positive behaviour descriptions and expectations of beneficial change. InterAction - The Journal of Solution Focus in Organisations I (2), 9–25.
· Visser, C.F. (2010). Self-Determination Theory Meets Solution-Focused Change: Autonomy, Competence and Relatedness Support in Action. InterAction - The Journal of Solution Focus in Organisations, Volume 2, Number 1, May 2010 , pp. 7-26(20)
· Walter, J.L. & Peller, J.E. (1992). Becoming Solution-focused in Brief therapy. Brunner/Mazel.