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About this book

This textbook shows how any conversation directed towards change can become a solution-focused one, whether in planned series of sessions with individuals, families, groups, or in the less structured contexts in which many helping professionals work.

Full of real-life case examples and stimulating activities, this will be an invaluable guide to anyone wanting to develop their skills in this empowering approach. This textbook is a comprehensive and accessible guide for anyone who wishes to incorporate solution-focused practice.

Originating in the world of talking therapies, the adaptability and usability of solution-focused practice is already used by many practitioners in health, social care and educational settings.

Table of Contents

1. Introduction

Andy Flower, the England cricket coach, was responding to a question on the ‘Today’ programme (BBC Radio 4, 30 November 2011) about the best piece of advice he had been given to help bring about success, and not just in sport but more widely in life. So here to start with is a simple idea from Nancy Kline, a different kind of coach, which invariably informs the beginning of my training courses, group work sessions and team meetings:
People think better throughout the whole meeting if the very first thing they do is to say something true and positive about how their work or the work of the group is going. (Kline, 1999, p. 107)
Guy Shennan

2. The Solution-Focused Process

Unlike most models of helping, the solution-focused approach did not originate in theory. It was developed by practitioners who spent countless hours practising and many more hours engaged in the ‘disciplined observation’ of their practice, trying to work out what worked and discarding those elements that appeared not to (de Shazer, 1988). So, since its earliest days, solution-focused practice has always been a pragmatic approach that is best grasped by seeing it done and by doing it. As we shall see again and again throughout this book, solution-focused practitioners’ questions come from what they hear their clients say, rather than from theories they carry around with them in their heads. It is not possible to learn how to do solution-focused practice from reading books containing theories about people, about why they have problems and about what therefore needs to be done to help to resolve those problems. Unlike the majority of helping approaches that have originated in the world of psychology, counselling and psychotherapy, solution-focused practice is not based on such theories. This poses a challenge for anyone setting out to write a book aimed at helping people learn how to do solution-focused practice. However, although the approach is not based on theories about people, it does have a clear process which guides practitioners through their solution-focused conversations. What is required is to see this in action.
Guy Shennan

3. Contracting

As Edward Said suggests, beginnings are crucial, and a good beginning will set the tone for all that follows. If the essential characteristic of any piece of solution-focused work, whether it consists of a five-minute conversation or five one-hour therapy sessions, is that it is aimed in a particular direction, that is, towards the client’s hoped-for outcome from the work, then a lot depends on how we set about establishing this direction at the outset. The solution-focused practitioner is helped immeasurably in beginning the work by keeping in mind what 1 see as the fundamental solution-focused assumption: if someone is talking to you, they must want something to come from that. A second useful idea is to see the process of asking someone what they want as one of contracting.
Guy Shennan

4. Description I: The Preferred Future

Once there is a contract for the work and the client has been helped to look forwards to where they want the work to take them, the worker will typically start to help them to describe, in rich, concrete detail, how they will know they have arrived there and the differences that arriving there will make. Such a description has come to be termed the client’s preferred future (Iveson, 1994), the future in which their hopes from the work have been realised. Solution-focused practitioners believe that describing such futures is a helpful step in bringing them about. Before reading further then, you might want to carry out this activity, just in case they are right!
Guy Shennan

5. Description II: Instances

In this chapter we turn our attention from preferred futures to the other pillar of the solution-focused approach — its focus on progress that is being made towards these futures, and on times when any parts of them are already happening or have happened. At the heart of the original shift from a problem-solving approach to a solution-focused practice was the increasing attention given to what people were doing that was working for them in some way, and to the notion of exceptions in particular. Helping people had traditionally been based on finding out what their problems were and then acting to resolve them, usually by first working out what was causing the problems. Steve de Shazer, Insoo Kim Berg and their colleagues turned this approach on its head by taking the simple yet revolutionary step of finding exceptions to the problems instead and helping them to happen more often.
Guy Shennan

6. Bridging the Preferred Future and Its Instances: Scaling Questions

Scaling questions are the most versatile and adaptable tools available to the solution-focused practitioner. They tend to be used in most structured sessions, both initial ones and follow-up, and can also be useful in a wide range of other conversational contexts, for example in supervision, meetings, sports coaching, one-minute conversations in school corridors, in any situation in fact where talking might help progress to occur. Indeed, the whole solution-focused approach resides within its simple 0–10 scale, which provides a bridge between the preferred future and the instances of this already in place; so coming to grasp how solution-focused scaling works is a sure route to understanding the whole approach. And the structure provided by the scale makes it readily accessible to beginning solution-focused practitioners, who frequently find scaling questions the most straightforward way in to using the approach.
Guy Shennan

7. Acknowledgement and Possibility: Coping Questions and More

So what might you do if your client tells you that they are at 0 on the scale? 1n her account of sequences of solution-focused questions, Lipchik (1988a, p. 117) says that ‘the construction of solutions & is greatly facilitated when the clients feel their complaints are accepted as stated and that they are being understood’ and that, therefore, ‘there are times when focusing on exceptions and potential solutions could prevent the necessary fit from being established and maintained’, where by ‘fit’ she is referring to the collaborative process between client and worker. Different sequences are required, which according to Lipchik were beyond the scope of her chapter. The aim of this chapter is to fill this gap by suggesting ways of responding and continuing solution-focused conversations when clients tell you that they are at 0 or find other means of indicating they are in ‘the middle of winter ‘, to use Camus’s expressive phrase. The ideas generated will also be useful for those times when clients are feeling stuck, immobilised perhaps by the weight of their problems; when strong negative emotions are being expressed; and in those follow-up meetings when the client responds to ‘What’s better?’ by reporting that nothing is better, the situation is the same, or worse.
Guy Shennan

8. Putting It All Together

In Chapter 2, I presented the overall solution-focused process, and in succeeding chapters, I have broken it down into its component parts. It is now time to put it back together again. In this chapter, I shall be focusing on how to use the whole approach in a structured fashion, session by session. To do this, it is important to be clear about the typical structures of first and follow-up sessions and how the work flows from one to the next. I shall begin with the simplest outlines of these structures, before fleshing these out in more detail, considering each stage of the session in turn. An extended case example will then illustrate ‘putting it all together’.
Guy Shennan

9. Applications and Adaptations

Solution-focused practice is used across a range of settings, with diverse groups of people and within varying activities. Having begun in the relatively small world of therapy, it has long since been applied in virtually every other type of human endeavour where people talk together to help change to happen. As well as in health and social care, solution-focused practice is now widely used in educational settings (Durrant, 1994; Rhodes and Ajmal, 1995; Ajmal and Rees, 2001; Måhlberg and Sjöblom, 2004; Kelly, Kim and Franklin, 2008; Young, 2009) and in organisational work (Jackson and McKergow, 2002; McKergow and Clarke, 2007). One of the features that make solution-focused practice flexible and adaptable for use in such a range of situations is the simplicity of its process. In the preceding chapters, I have simplified further, by mainly explaining and illustrating this process in the context of one-to-one help being provided in structured sessions. In this chapter, I hope to give a flavour of the variety of the approach and to provide and provoke some ideas about how it can be applied outside of this most simple context.
Guy Shennan

10. Becoming a Solution-Focused Practitioner

So by now you will have arrived at the starting line — ready to take your marks. The aim of this chapter is to help you to get set, go and then be able to keep going after the first few laps of the track. I will share some ideas about how and where to get started, including creating a context in which you can use the solution-focused approach. After leaving the starting line, the learning really kicks in, through the hard work of practice, practice, practice. Given that despite being simple ‘it ain’t easy’, I will provide a number of tips that have proved useful to practitioners coming up against the sort of hurdles that can appear when managing solution-focused conversations. I hope they will help you to clear the hurdles and continue round the track, but at times you will hit one and go down. At this point I hope the words of Beckett quoted above will encourage you to get up and go again. Finally, I will answer some of the frequently asked questions that people raise on training courses, including about the approach’s evidence base, which has been growing rapidly.
Guy Shennan
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