December 31, 2007

The autonomy-supportive teaching style

In Improving Academic Achievement, chapter four is written by Edward Deci and Richard Ryan. They criticize well intended but ineffective measures to improve academic achievement like 1) implementing stringent new testing programs, 2) giving large amounts of homework, 3) putting much emphasis on rewards, punishments and controls (like deadlines), and 4) using controlling and pressuring language. The authors show that these kinds of measures will lead to substantial motivational and emotional costs and high-quality achievement (like conceptual learning, creativity and flexible problem solving) will suffer too for the majority of the students.

The authors show favorable effects of stimulating intrinsic motivation of students. People are intrinsically motivated when they do activities that interest them, that provide them spontaneous pleasure or enjoyment and do not require external rewards. When intrinsically motivated, people are engrossed in the activity, and they are not easily distracted. The initiative is theirs and they persist for long periods. Furthermore, when students are intrinsically motivated they learn better at the conceptual level.

How can intrinsic motivation be stimulated? A critical factor to experiencing intrinsic motivation is perceived autonomy. When people feel autonomous they experience the initiation of their behavior to be within themselves and they become more intrinsically motivated. Any factor that conduces toward a so-called external perceived locus of causality (E-PLOC) will diminish intrinsic motivation. Punishments, rewards and controls are examples of this. They interfere with students' perceived autonomy or put differently, with their self-regulation. Any factor that fosters an internal locus of causality (I-PLOC) will enhance intrinsic motivation. Encouraging self-initiative, providing choice and stimulating experimentation are examples of this.

Intrinsic motivation is not the whole story of course. Deadlines, rewards and punishments will to some extent be a given in any educational system. Extrinsic motivation (doing something not because it interests you but because it leads to a desirable outcome) certainly plays an important role too.

Teachers and parents can provide a learning environment that supports satisfaction of the needs for autonomy, competence and relatedness which will lead to students not only be more intrinsically motivated but also be more effective in internalizing and integrating extrinsic motivation so as to be more cooperative and volitional overall.

Teachers and parents can provide this by using an autonomy-supportive style which is characterized by: 1) providing choice, 2) encouraging students' experimentation and self-initiation, 3) foster students' willingness to take on challenges, explore new ideas and persist at difficult activities, 4) offering optimal challenges (neither too easy, nor too difficult), 5) providing feedback that is not evaluative of the person, 6) giving a meaningful rationale for requested behavior, 7) acknowledging feelings, 8) setting up cooperative learning opportunities. (also view this video)

December 30, 2007


I am reading a jewel of a book by the title Improving Academic Achievement, edited by social psychologist Joshua Aronson. One of the chapters is titled 'Messages that motivate'. It is written by Carol Dweck. In this chapter she explains the importance of beliefs about intelligence. Carol Dweck describes two mindsets: the fixed mindset and the growth mindset. Children who hold a fixed mindset see intelligence as a more or less fixed trait: you have a certain amount and there is not much you can do to change it. Children who hold a growth mindset see intelligence as developable. They view achievement mainly as a matter of effort. Carol Dweck has shown convincingly through many elegant experiments that which mindset you hold, has a dramatic impact on achievement. The table below summarizes the differences between the fixed and the growth mindset:
Clearly the growth mindset is more attractive in many ways. The chapter gets even more interesting when Carol Dweck goes on to a practical level. How can educators and parents help children develop a growth mindset? In particular, what is the role of praise? Two forms of praise are compared: process praise and trait praise. With process praise you compliment the child with his or her effort or strategy ("You must have worked hard", or: "You must have used a good strategy to solve this"). With trait praise you compliment the child for a trait, some kind of fixed internal quality ("You have done well, you must be very smart."). The table below shows the different impacts these two styles of praising children have.

Very interesting, don't you think?

Valuable contribution to the field

I have added a brief review of the Handbook of Solution-Focused Brief Therapy which came out recently. It can be found on my amazon reviews page.

December 23, 2007

Describing a future in which the problem is solved

"Simply describing in detail a future in which the problem is already solved helps to build the expectation that the problem will be solved and then this expectation, once formed, can help the client think and behave in ways that will lead to fulfilling this expectation."
I found it in a chapter by Duane R. Bidwell

December 22, 2007

Solution-focused change management (case)

Professionals beginning to apply the solution-focused approach often find the following challenging: How can I apply the solution focus in team situations? Here is a very brief summary of an example to provide some ideas. Recently, I coached a department of a large IT organization. Since many years, this department has taken care of the technical support of an IT system of a large insurance company. Both the organization of the client company (the insurance company) and their own company is changing due to which some problems have arisen. The department management has decided to organize a few meetings with the team to adjust and improve the way of working by the team. The purpose of the meetings was to generate some ideas. The department management had two specific themes to pay attention to during the meetings: 1) the subject of giving feedback to one another in order to improve the cooperation within the team, 2) strengthening the customer intimacy (management of the company expects each department to strengthen this orientation). In the meetings the following agenda has been used:
  1. Background and reason for the meeting (department manager explains)
  2. Goal of the session (what outcomes do we want from this session?)
  3. What does not have to change? (continuation question): 1. Which things don't have to change because they are already going well? 2. What improvements have already been realized since the invitation to the meeting has been sent? (this was a few weeks earlier), and 3. What does the client think about our service (department manager tells about feedback provided by the client)
  4. How do we want things to become? (future projection): 1. What will be better when we succeed in improving customer intimacy?, 2. How will the people in the client's organization know the difference? What will be the advantage for them? 3. How will others in our own organization (other department, board of directors etc.) notice we will have succeed in improving our customer intimacy and our performance?
  5. How will give each other effective feedback? 1. How will you notice we will have become more effective in this? 2. How can you contribute to improving feedback?
  6. What is our next step forward? 1. Which signals tell us that this change can become successful? 2. Which steps can the team take to create improvements? 3. Which specific step forward are you prepared to take? 4. How can the department management best contribute to the improvements?
During the beginning of the meetings some team member had to get into it at first. When discussing agenda point three they got going, however. During the course of the meetings excellent ideas were generated and at the end of each session very useful outcomes were produced which were enthusiastically welcomed by management.

December 20, 2007

Gregory Bateson's main contribution to the solution-focused approach?

In a new book chapter, Brian Cade writes about the importance of Gregory Bateson for the development of the solution-focused approach:

"I one day asked Jay Haley what he thought was the most important contribution Bateson had made toward family therapy. He replied that it was finding the money to send John Weakland and him to spend time with Milton Erickson on a couple of occasions each year."

Bateson is often cited as an important influence in his own right but this quote suggests it might be more realistic to view Bateson's role more as a secondary one. I tend to think that his main contribution was to start the Bateson communication research project in which people like John Weakland and other spend many hours analyzing taped conversations by extraordinary therapists like Milton Erickson and Don Jackson. Especially Milton Erickson seems like a much more important and path-breaking figure to the development of the solution-focused approach.

Granted, this is only my interpretation. Another interpretation of mine is that there was another philosopher who has been more important to the development of the solution-focused approach than Ludwig Wittgenstein.

December 19, 2007

Being slow-to-know

I have written before about the not-knowing posture. Frank Thomas (picture) has an interesting variation on this terminology. He writes:
"I have found that being slow-to-know is a more realistic stance. First, being slow-to-know encourages the expansion of people's descriptions, allowing diversity to emerge as clients restate posititions and overexplain themselves. Because I am driven to be open to correction and I am constantly revising my ideas, this slowness is not an act -the client knows that I am not mentally slow, but they re-act and re-search with me in hopes of re-creating some meaningful differences from their own language and experience." (source, p8)
I like the idea of patiently developing your understanding of something.

December 18, 2007

Elf yourself

Hey, it's nearly Christmas so I thought I'd make a total elf of myself. Check it out by clicking the picture.

December 15, 2007

General change mechanisms - the importance of RESOURCE ACTIVATION

This article by Daniel Gassmann and Klaus Grawe has investigated the role of the importance of problem activation and resource activation in therapy. A study, I think, which is very interesting for solution-focused coaches and managers, too. Problem activation means having the client come into contact with painful emotions to overcome his or her problems. Resource activation means the client is brought into contact with the healthy parts of his functioning. The researchers closely analyzed 120 conversations of therapists using different degrees of problem activation and resource activation and they used as an outcome measure a composite of five tests measuring goal attainment, emotional and behavioral changes, changes in important relationships and patient and therapist positive therapy evaluation. The researchers found that unsuccessful therapists focused more on the client's problems and tended to overlook the client's resources which lead to the client loosing self-confidence and positive rapport with the therapist. they also did not respond with reinforcement to the patient's activated resources. Instead, they let these situations pass and continued to focus on problems. The successful therapists, however, focused on what went well for the patient right from the beginning of the session. They created an environment in which the patient felt he was perceived as a well functioning person. As soon as this was established, productive work on the patient's problems was more likely.

Thanks to Svea van der Hoorn from Australia for getting me this article

December 12, 2007

Effects on counselors

Research on the effects of different therapy, coaching, consultancy or counseling approaches usually focuses on the effects for clients: are they helped, is there progress, did they accomplish their goals, etc?). Preliminary evidence shows that the solution-focused approach does rather well. It seems to be at least as effective as other approaches, it is very broadly applicable and results are usually achieved much faster. To my knowledge, less is know about effects on the professionals themselves. What is known about the effects on professionals of using the solution-focused approach? I know of one article that addresses this question directly: Solution-focused counseling groups: The results are in. This article examines the effects on counselors and found this:
Those who had adopted the solution-focused model (solution-focused counselors) reported less perceived emotional exhaustion than did those (other counselors) who did not adopt the model although the difference was nog significant. Solution-focused counselors reported less depersonalization than did other counselors. Solution-focused counselors reported more perceived personal accomplishment than did other counselors. The consistently positive feedback from counselors makes this approach a promising one. Many counselors shared that they liked the concepts of solution-focused groups, found them to be time-effective, and that they planned to implement more of these groups the following year.
This fits well with my experience. Does anyone know of more of this type of research? It's welcome.
Thanks to Thorana Nelson for helping me find this

December 11, 2007

Normalizing - depathologizing technique

One of the nice things about the solution-focused approach is that it has many subtle and effective techniques. One of them is normalizing. Normalizing is used to depathologize people’s concerns and present them instead as normal life difficulties (Corcoran, 2002). It helps people to calm down about their problem. It helps them realize they're not abnormal for having this problem. Other people in their situation might respond the same. This is important, because if they felt angry and they'd also feel their anger was pathological, they'd have two problems, their anger and the fact that they behaved pathological. That their behavior would be pathological would be a surplus problem to the original problem (the thing they were angry about). Normalizing helps to prevent this surplus problem from happening. By saying something like: "Of course, you're angry, I understand. It's normal to be angry right now." You can help people to relax and to move on relatively quickly beyond their anger.

December 6, 2007

The Secret to Raising Smart Kids

Many people assume that superior intelligence or ability is a key to success. But more than three decades of research shows that an overemphasis on intellect or talent—and the implication that such traits are innate and fixed—leaves people vulnerable to failure, fearful of challenges and unmotivated to learn. Read on.

December 5, 2007

Priming experiments, unconscious and automatic mental processes

I have just ordered Social Psychology and the Unconscious by John A. Bargh et al. John Bargh is a leading researcher in the field of automatic and unconscious mental processes. He is well-known for some very creative and interesting priming experiments. Malcolm Gladwell described some of these in his famous book Blink. One of the contributors to this book is Dutch psychologist Ap Dijksterhuis, who is also one of the leading people in the field. In an earlier post in mentioned one of his experiments. Here is another interesting experiment I mentioned before. Here are some articles by researchers from this field:

December 3, 2007

The optimism question

An interesting question from the solution-focused approach is the optimism question. The optimism question can be easily used both in one-on-one situations and in group situations. Here are some ways of putting this question:"
  1. What makes you optimistic?
  2. Which indications do you have that you will be able to achieve ...?
  3. Which small signs do see that indicate you will succeed in ....?
The nice thing about this question is that it makes changes easier by strengthening - you have guessed it right!- optimism.

Also read:

December 2, 2007

The continuation question

A solution-focused technique which often works very well, both with individual and with organizational change is the continuation question. This is the question:
  • "What happens in your situation that you want to continue to have happen?" or, put differently:
  • "What doesn't have to change because it is already going well enough?"
By asking this question you make clear that the client (or employee) does not have to change more than necessary and you acknowledge that there are things that are going well. Inviting people first to mention what does not have to change often has the following advantages:
  • That they feel taken seriously and appreciated (after all there is ackowledgement for the fact that at least some things are going well)
  • That after they have said what does not have to change, often are more open and prepared to look at things that do need to change
  • That they find some useful ideas that can be helpful for making progress

November 28, 2007

Spirit of approval

“I have yet to find the person, however great or exalted his station, who did not do better work and put forth greater effort under a spirit of approval than he would ever do under a spirit of criticism.”

~ Charles M. Schwab (1862-1939).
I found this quote here.
Also read: Criticism quote

Human nature

"Our beliefs about human nature help shape human nature itself."

- Robert Frank, Source: Frank, R. (1988).

November 26, 2007

Putting neurons in action

"When we exercise our brains, we put our neurons and connections between neurons in action. Given the diversity of functions outlined above, it is clear that different activities are going to activate different brain areas, which scientists now know thanks to neuroimaging techniques. There is no one magic bullet that is best (either crosswords puzzles, or computer-based programs, or physical exercise): we do need a variety of mental stimulation or "brain exercises".
- Source: Sharpbrains

November 24, 2007

Moving FORWARD with solution-focused change

A new and different way of explaining the solution-focused approach is through the FORWARD acronym. The letters FORWARD stand for:

Read more about FORWARD

November 23, 2007

The next step forward

In conversations with managers I often notice they find it hard to address things that are not going conform to expectations (e.g. topic X is not going very well). Here are some of the things they tell me they are trying:

1. "How do YOU think it is going?"
The good intention behind this approach is that the employee gets the opportunity to express his own view. But this approach often backfires. Employees may respond with suspicion to a question phrased this way. (What's HE after? What is REALLY behind this question?). Moreover, it turns out employees usually don't adress topic X themselves. And when the manager has to address topic X himself ("topic X is not going very well") the employee responds defensively and upset.

2. "X is not going very well"
A more direct approach might be to say something like: "I want to talk to you about X. It is not going very well. I would like you to do such and so." The good thing about this approach is that there is no beating about the bush. The manager is honest and to the point, the employee does not have to second guess. The disadvantage is that employees often respond defensively and immediately point out they have done lots of things very well and there are many reasons beyond their control why topic X is not going very well. In this direct approach (topic X is not going very well) people often don't receive acknowledgement and appreciation for what they have done well.

3. “ABC is going fine but X is not”
The strength of this approach is that the manager does not only mention what is wrong but also what is right. This means the message is more complete. Still, employees often react defensively to this kind of message. It is like they only respond to the second part of the message. Although the appreciation was given in the first part (ABC is going fine) it looks like the second part (but X is not) somehow erases the first part of the message. Managers who try this approach with the best of intentions sometimes ask me desperately: "If this doesn't work what else can I try to show that I do appreciate ABC? How can I prevent them from getting defensive?"

An approach inspired by solution-focused principles often works well:

4. “ABC is going well. The next step forward is X.
This approach has two characteristics. The appreciation is mentioned specifically and the employee gets the opportunity to respond (if he wants to). After the appreciation has been shown the word BUT is avoided. Instead, what is not going well enough is presented as the next step forward. By doing this, you make sure that the expressed appreciation (ABC is going well) does not get 'erased' but still stands.

An example:
Manager: I'd like to have a word with you about the client presentation you did yesterday, is that okay?
Employee: Ehm …Okay, fine. What about it?
Manager: I thought your presentation looked beautiful and very professional. I can see you have become better and better in this.
Employee: Thanks. I put in a lot time to get it looking like this.
Manager: It shows. The result was great.
Employee: Gosh, thanks. Nice to hear.
Manager: As a good next step in making your presentations better and better, I'd like you to simplify the structure of your presentations a bit so that clients will understand them easier and they will become even more convincing.
Employee: Oh ... okay…. Tough one. There's so much to inform them about. I really wrestled with what to include and in what order.....
Manager: Sure, it ain't easy ... Let's talk about it.
(and so forth ...)
(thanks for thinking along to Gwenda Schlundt Bodien and Jim Mortensen)

November 19, 2007

Some measure of doubt

I think we ought always to entertain our opinions with some measure of doubt. I shouldn’t wish people dogmatically to believe any philosophy, not even mine.

- Bertrand Russell, Source: Michael Canfield, A very short essay on doubt

November 18, 2007

Evidence of the advantage of using the words of the client (language matching)

In solution-focused coaching (or therapy), one of the things the coach does is summarizing what the client has said. While doing this, the coach uses the words of the client as much as possible. Often, the coach does not 'interpret' or change the words. Instead, he usually just uses the same language. The fact that the coach uses the same words as the client, makes it easy for the client to know that the coach has listened well, taken him seriously and that he has understood what the client has said. The principle of using the words of the client has consequences for the coach as well. Having to do that forces the coach to listen really well (otherwise you won't be able to use the clients' language. It forces you to concentrate really well.

Today, while reading a book by Ap Dijksterhuis (I mentioned him here before), I came across an experiment which shines a interesting light on the value of using the clients' language. Dutch researchers Rich van Baaren, Rob Holland, Bregje Steenaert and Ad van Knippenberg wrote the article 'Mimicry for money: Behavioral consequences of imitation'. Here is a summary of the article:
"Two experiments investigated the idea that mimicry leads to pro-social behavior. It was hypothesized that mimicking the verbal behavior of customers would increase the size of tips. In Experiment 1, a waitress either mimicked half her customers by literally repeating their order or did not mimic her customers. It was found that she received significantly larger tips when she mimicked her customers than when she did not. In Experiment 2, in addition to a mimicry- and non-mimicry condition, a baseline condition was included in which the average tip was assessed prior to the experiment. The results indicated that, compared to the baseline, mimicry leads to larger tips. These results demonstrate that mimicry can be advantageous for the imitator because it can make people more generous." (source)
This sheds an interesting light on the importance of using the words of the client. An important aspect of the advantage of using the clients' words is that it helps the client to like the coach much more. It improves the relationship between the two. And this, as has been shown before, is an important factor of the effectiveness of coaching and therapy.

November 17, 2007

Don't isolate your attention to non-verbal behavior

How important is non-verbal behavior?
"It's important. It has to fit with the rest of the behavior and the context. But it is important not to isolate attention to non-verbal behavior. Most people emphasize non-verbal behavior a lot. But if you focus too much on non-verbal behavior it can interfere with the attention you have to have for your client. Mostly if you focus your attention well on your client, your non-verbal behavior will automatically fit."
- Insoo Kim Berg, source

November 16, 2007

Small differences, large impact

Sometimes small differences in the initial conditions generate very large differences in the final phenomena. A slight error in the former could produce a tremendous error in the latter. Prediction becomes impossible; we have accidental phenomena.

- Henri Poincaré

This fact of nature makes it easier to appreciate the uniques of individuals' experiences and to appreciate the value of taking small steps. Small changes in situations can lead to important shift.

November 11, 2007

Suggestions for working with 'difficult' students

Jeff Dustin, positive psychologist, read something I wrote and asked me this: "I work with students with severe emotional and behavioral disorders. It seems like progress is imperceptibly slow and the burnout rate at my job is measured in weeks to months. I wonder what steps a solution focus could bring to help staff cope better with the daily grind."
I belief the solution-focused approach may indeed offer some interesting and useful things. Here are some suggestions:

November 8, 2007

Bad temper

Eric has a bad temper. Under pressure he tends to lash out verbally at those around him. He can´t really understand why he is like this. He feels maybe he is too repressed, unhappy at home, worried about money –there are plenty of things that could be causing it. Using the solution-focused approach his coach puts all these causes to one side and asks him when he is least likely to lose his temper. Eric works out that he feels more in control in the mornings, whe he is less tired. He also realises that he is less likely to get stressed when he is away from his own desk. He finds constant interruptions very difficult to cope with and these are more likely to happen when he is easily available. Eric begins to schedule his more important meetings for the mornings and to try to get the bulk of his important work done early in the day. He also begins to work from home one day a week and tries to save the kind of work that needs unbroken concentration for that that day. He asks people not to call him on that day unless it s absolutely vital. (Source: Greene, J & Grant A.M (2003) Solution-focused Coaching London: Momentum Press)

Documentary My Brilliant Brain

Yesterday's quote was taken from the National Geographic documentary My brilliant Brain: make me a genius. Youtube has many fragments of it online:

On the one hand it seems like an impressive confirmation of the growth mindset idea. On the other I am not completely comfortable with the idea of methodically turning kids into geniuses.

November 7, 2007

One of the principles of teaching: follow the child's lead

"One of the principles of teaching is to follow the child's lead. Because if the child is into something, that's something they're ready to learn. It's not a matter of just throwing stuff at a kid. You basically say: what is this child likely to be comfortable doing right now? What has he got the capabilties for? And then you do something that stretches him just a little."

~ Joe Sparling, source, more info here

November 6, 2007

The name solution-focused: is it wrong?

Steve de Shazer, Insoo Kim Berg and their colleagues from the Brief Family Therapy Center have named their approach Solution-focused therapy. My work has been inspired primarily by their work. That is why I chose to name this site Solution-focused change: to give credit to them and to honor their work. But if it weren't for that I would probably use another name. Because I think the term Solution-focused is not extremely clear and maybe even a bit misleading. The word 'solution' refers to the concept of (problem) solving. And problem solving really seems to be a concept from a defect based paradigm. It refers to getting rid of what is negative whereas solution-focused practise does something more that that or something different than that. It helps to create positive outcomes, success, results. Success-focused change, or results-focused change might in fact be a better name for this approach. Or not? What do you think?

November 3, 2007

SF Situation Management

What if someone asks your help with an urgent problem and you've only got a few minutes? Is there a solution-focused technique you can use? There is. Alasdair Macdonald developed "SF Situation Management", a technique for rapid handling of day to day challenges by coworkers:
  1. When someone comes through the door, often in a state of concern or anger, immediately set aside your current tasks and give them your full attention. (But don't invite them to sit down.)
  2. Ask for a behavioral description: What happens? Who does what? When does / did it happen? Are we certain that this is happening? How do we know? Take brief notes.
  3. What small / first step will show us that the situation is moving in the right direction? What can be done? Who can do it? What is the next step in this situation? (Give space and have people come up with their own ideas first rather than offer advice.)
  4. When do we review this? What do we do to review this? A brief record of the outcome of the conversation can be added to your initial notes.
Time required: in general about four to five minutes. I like it. It looks simple and practical. It leaves out searching for causes, and focuses on facts and next steps.

Source: Alasdair Macdonald: “Solution Focused Situation Management: Finding Cooperaton Quickly”, in: Lueger & Korn (eds.): “Solution Focused Management”, Rainer Hampp Verlag, München 2006; pg.61ff

November 1, 2007

What are contra-indications for solution-focused working?

When I was doing a workshop I started my explanation of the solution-focused approach by explaining what I think it is NOT, namely a silver bullet approach. By this, I mean the following: 1) Solution-focused working is not the best approach for ALL problems, 2) Solution-focused work does not have to be practiced by EVERYONE, 3) Solution-focused work will never lead to an Utopian situation.

Yesterday, someone asked me, during a training for an educational services organization, what some of the contra-indications are for solution-focused working. In other words: when do you deliberately do something else instead of SF? Well, it is an interesting question. But also a hard one because I have experienced over the years how enormously broadly applicable the solution-focused model is: coaching, management, career counseling, conflict management, teambuilding, sales, organizational change, personnel management, education etc.). Here is what I answered to the question when not to use the solution-focused approach:
  1. If you have reason to think that the complaint primarily has to do with physical causes. (If the client complains about chest pain radiating to their left arm, suggest he sees a doctor fast instead of doing the miracle question).
  2. If there is a proven standard approach for the type of problem your client mentions. (If your client asks you how to compose an application resume you might just hand him some examples instead of asking him some scaling questions).
  3. If the problem of the client has to do with some kind of technical defect. If the one you're talking to says he cannot get his computer going it may be wiser to check the cables than to ask for exceptions to the problem.
  4. If there is an urgent situation or danger. In those cases you may not have enough time to lead from behind. Instead, you may first need to take some directive action. Perhaps after that, you may continue solution-focused.
Granted, the examples mentioned may appear a bit silly and simplistic. But what I am really trying to point at is the criteria mentioned:
  1. physical problems
  2. proven standard approaches
  3. technical defects
  4. high urgency or danger
Maybe these criteria can shine some light on when not to work (or at least start off) in a solution-focused manner. These answers are only a starting point. More ideas are certainly welcome.

October 29, 2007

Reframing an employee's behavior

More and more managers have started to use solution-focused principles and techniques in their conversations with employees. One of the key things while doing that is to approach employees constructively. In 2005, Insoo Kim Berg and I tried to explain this in the artcile Looking at the Other Side of the Coin. Here is a quote from that article:
"When we, as managers, change how we view a person, we can generate much simpler and easier solutions to them so that we can focus our attention on more difficult and time consuming issues. Framing an employee's behavior in a constructive way offers much more flexible ways to solve the manager’s problem."

October 27, 2007

Positive psychology and Carol Dweck

A few weeks ago I posted this post: It is essentially about what has functioned well (not about strengths). In this post I said this about solution-focused questions:
"It is not certain that the answer to these questions necessarily leads to the discovery of some stable personal strength. What the answer will lead to is to the identification of some behaviour which in the past has been successful in a more or less comparable situation. So these are not strengths based questions so much as questions which shine a light on what has functioned well. What has functioned well does not exclusively refer to people only but to the interaction between people and situations. So, again it may be wise to be careful of placing a great emphasis on any kind of fixed labels on people (even if these labels are positive). Here is another reason for that. Carol Dweck, Stanford professor, has warned against complimenting children for intelligence. Her research shows that praising children for intelligence leads them to fear challenges and makes them feel stupid and discouraged when they fail."

Today, I was pleased to see an article on Positive Psychology News Daily by Bridget Grenville-Cleave about this same idea and also refering to Carol Dweck's work. Here is a quote from that article:
"Perhaps focusing on people’s strengths and creating labels (albeit positive ones) is not always a good thing."

Six functions of solution-focused summaries

I was reading the new third edition of Interviewing for solutions. The new edition is recommendable because it has been updated really well. On page 28, I came across a subject which I think is underrated in solution-focused articles and books: summaries. Here are the different uses of summaries that are mentioned:
  1. The summary reassures the client that the SF practitioner was listening carefully
  2. The summary reassures the SF practitioner that he has heard the client accurately
  3. By using the client's words in the summary the SF practitioner shows respect for the client's frame of reference
  4. The summary (if done descriptively and in a spirit of openness) has the effect of inviting the client to say more (correct, revise or add)
  5. The summary has the effect of putting the client in control of how to describe their experiences
  6. The summary assists the SF practitioner in formulating the next question based on what the client has just revealed

October 19, 2007

Help wanted from solution-focused connaisseurs

I have made a page about solution-focused terms and their first mentions in publications. My goal on this page is to make a list of the most important terms and concepts which originated from within the solution-focused approach. In the table on that page important solution-focused terms are listed in the left column. The right column shows the first book or article in which the term was mentioned for the first time (as far as I know). This is obviously a work in progress. It is quite possible there are some mistakes and ommissions here. So will you help me develop this list further? Here is the page.

October 18, 2007

Creating the expectation of beneficial change

"The most useful way to decide which door can be opened to get a solution is by getting a description of what the client will be doing differently and/or what sorts of things will be happening that are different when the problem is solved, thus creating the expectation of beneficial change."

- Steve de Shazer, source of this quote, I found it here.

October 17, 2007


That's really nice: within only a few weeks, my video A brief history of the solution-focused approach has been viewed more than a thousand times....

October 14, 2007

Pre-session change

Imagine someone who has some kind of personal or professional problem. He calls a coach (or a therapist or consultant) to make an appointment. Soon after the phone call they have their first conversation. They start talking about the situation of the client. QUESTION: when does the client start to change? Conventional wisdom says that clients start to change when the coach starts to help them. After all, the client couldn't solve the problem alone... apparently he was stuck and needed help from a professional. Right? Wrong!

October 10, 2007

The flow of a solution-focused conversation

As you may have noticed before, I quite like visualisations of 'the' solution-focused process (see for instance Pathways to progress, When and where can you find solutions? and Solution Thinking visual). I found another one in this article by Chris Iveson, an English Solution-focused practitioner. It is called the flow of a session and this is it (click on the picture to enlarge it):

Professional attitude

"Responsible practitioners should practise with a cautious, open and questioning attitude."

- Robin M. Dawes, author of House of Cards, 1994

October 8, 2007

Research on Solution-Focused Therapy

It is a pity I can't find a pdf file of the full version of this article: A Review of the Research on Solution-Focused Therapy (by Jacqueline Corcoran and Vijayan Pillai). I can only find this summary (which does not give away anything about findings):

Solution-focused therapy is a strengths-based approach, emphasizing the resources people invariably possess and how these can be applied to the change process. A review was undertaken on the treatment outcome research involving solution-focused therapy to determine empirically its effectiveness. The review involved experimental or quasi-experimental designs conducted from 1985 to 2006 and was limited to published studies written in the English language. Subject, intervention and methodological information on studies were collected, as well as statistical information necessary to calculate effect sizes. After searching the literature, ten studies were located and described. No particular characteristics emerged regarding studies with high versus low effect sizes. Implications for research are advanced based on the review, especially related to social work practice.
Anyone who knows more about the findings of this study please let me know..

October 7, 2007

The Support Group antibullying approach

An interesting approach of dealing with bullying problems in schools is the so-called support group approach. English solution-focused practitioner Sue Young writes: "The approach addresses bullying by forming a support group of ‘bullies’ and/or bystanders. Without apportioning blame, it uses a problem-solving approach, giving responsibility to the group to solve the problem and to report back at a subsequent review meeting." As you can see this is very solution-focused approach because no blame is used, and causes of the bullying are not investigated. Instead, the collaborative solution-building process starts right away. If you're interested you can read more in this article: Should We Blame the Bullies?

October 6, 2007

The importance of the way questions are framed

Barry Schwartz has written an interesting article in Scientific American Mind with the title When words decide. Two summarizing sentences are used in the article which seem very solution-focused:
  • "The phrasing of questions or choices can have profound, and often counterintuitive, effect on the way people make decisions"
  • "Research on the effects of language on choice suggests that people do not always strictly possess preferences and values but rather construct them when they are asked a question or give a choice"
This may explain why using constructive, and positive language in the way it is done in solution-focused conversations, may help people choose constructive and positive attitudes and goals.

October 3, 2007

The pragmatists

A group of philosophers who had an influence on the development of the solution-focused approach (or who at least can be seen as antecedents) are the so-called pragmatists. Two prominent examples are William James (1842-1910; see picture) and John Dewey (1859-1952). These pragmatists became popular (again) in the 1950's when some important fundaments of the solution-focused approach were laid (in the work of Milton Erickson for instance who himself was very pragmatic in his conversations with clients). The pragmatists consider practical consequences of behavior to be vital components of meaning and truth (read more about this here). In simpler terms, the pragmatists shifted their attention from trying to understand and predict reality to trying to identify what works. William James stresses (inspired by F.C.S. Schiller) that we are makers of reality. On this page you find a selection of quotes by William James. Here is a particular quote which is directly related to the solution-focused approach:
"Truth is what works."
- William James

October 2, 2007

For that, you have to be Superman!

Jan Kuipers told me a nice example of a solution-focused conversation he had had with a young school child. Paul is boy who has driven his teacher to despair by pushing all the light buttons every time he walks out of the class room. The teacher has told him time and again not to do that, but he just keeps on doing it, claiming he can not leave it. Jan met Paul and asked him whether he had an idea about how he could walk out of the classroom without pushing the buttons. Paul thought for a second and answered: "That is so hard, for that, you have to be Superman!" Jan smiled and thought for a second. Then he asked: “Oh, is that right, can Superman do it? Can you show me how he does that?" Paul answered: “I can't, for that I need to have Superman with me!" "Aha, I understand”, Jan said, "and do you have Superman?” “Yes, I do!” said Paul enthusiastically, “Shall I get him?” “Ok, do it”, Jan said and Paul ran out of the classroom. When Paul returned, one minute later, Jan asked: "Hey Paul, what did I see just now? You ran out of the classroom without hitting the light buttons.... How did you do that?” Paul smiled a big smile and proudly held a small key hanger with a Superman puppet on it in the air. At the end of the conversation Paul walked out of the classroom. Slowly he walked past the light buttons. When he was right next to them he lifted his Superman puppet in the air and proudly he walked past them without pushing them.

September 30, 2007

Who invented the solution-focused SCALING QUESTIONS?

Scaling questions belong to the simplest, most appealing and accessible tools that have emerged within the practise of the solution-focused approach to change management. Scales are very easy to use and have many applications (read this article if you'd like to learn how). Many people who are not familiar with the solution-focused approach (or hardly) still use scales in their conversations. I have been wondering for quite some who the first person was who deliberately started using scales in conversations. My hunch was it must have been Steve de Shazer. And this indeed seems to be case (although, as with other techniques, other members of the SFBT team will most likely have helped refine it). The article I mentioned yesterday says this about the invention of the scale-technique:
"The “scale question” similarly arose by chance. De Shazer tells of a client who had come to his second session. The therapist asked how he was doing or what was better now. The client had spontaneously replied: “I’ve almost reached 10 already!” The therapist began to play with the idea of using numbers to describe one’s situation. This started the development of the scale question used in solution-focused therapy. During the work process, something happened that was perceived to be useful and it was done again. (de Shazer, 1999)."

September 29, 2007

A brief history of the solution-focused approach (continued)

Making the video of the development of the solution-focused approach has been great fun. And so was the great response that came to the video. Within a few days it was viewed by hundreds of people. One of them said: "Now I can put faces to names." There were also some interesting suggestions (let's NOT mention the people who suggested they themselves should have been included ;-). I want to restrict the video to people who have contributed before the year 2000. Of course, SF is still very much alive and very much a work in progress but I think it is too early for history writing about this. And I don't feel like doing that anyway. Ok, here are some interesting suggestions. Mark McKergow suggested that Jay Haley is probably better known for his book Uncommon Therapy than the Jesus Christ book. And I think Mark is right. In this case, it was a deliberate choice for the 'Jesus book' because Insoo Kim Berg once told me that this book had been very influential to her (She told me: "I started reading a lot and I came across a text by Jay Haley called 'The power tactics of Jesus Christ'. Can you imagine that? This was a shock! I was shaken up. That was the beginning", source). Mark also told me I misspelled Dick Fisch's name. (It is Fisch, not Fish). My apologies. If I'll make an update, this will be the first thing that will be corrected. Agneta Castenberg and Peter Sundman suggested to include Elam Nunnally, who was part of the development of SF in the very beginning, in a next version. Good idea. A few people suggested Matthew Selekman as another person to add. I myself realized I forgot to add Peter De Jong who probably should have been in the video for cowriting one of the best SF books, Interviewing for Solutions. While making the video I came across this article by Tapio Malinen. In contains many many interesting details about the development of the solution-focused approach. Among other things, it supports Bill O'Hanlons claim of Don Norum's influence (in 1978 he wrote the paper "The Family Has The Solution"). All in all, this process has been very interesting and I learned some interesting new things from doing it. For people who can't get enough, a book chapter by Brian Cade (who is included in the video himself by the way) will be of interest. Its title is 'Springs, Streams and Tributaries: A History of The Brief, Solution-focused Approach' and it will appear in a book which is to appear soon (see here).

September 28, 2007

The capacity to detect improvement

Albert Schweitzer said that the secret to life is gratitude. I think that's a powerful way of communicating that gratitude is an underestimated thing in life. But 'the secret of life'? Isn't that a bit exaggerated? There is no one secret to life for everyone. But okay, let's be a good sport and go along with the game. If we'd be playing the game of 'what's the secret to life?', I'd like to propose another candidate.

My candidate would be the capacity to detect improvement. One of the greatest aspects of the solution-focused approach is to help people identify what is going better. When people identify things that are going better they tend to immediately feel energized, they start to smile, their eyes start to shine. They rediscover hope and optimism and they often find ideas for taking next steps forward. It seems we often are oblivious to all the good things and improvement that are all around us. When looking at the evening news most of what we see is a list of incidents and problems. It would be a mistake to think that the news is a representative summary of what happened in the world that day. Rather, it is (almost) a list of what went wrong that day (who died?, where is there a war going on?, what political deadlocks were there today? etc). It is easy to see what is going wrong and what is going worse. We all seem to be automatically good at doing that. The idea that things are getting worse and worse in the world seems appealing to many. Yet, the truth may be quite the opposite.

Nearly everything in the world may be getting better and better (see for instance this book: The improving state of the world - Why we're living longer, healthier, more comfortable lives on a cleaner planet). But the thing with improvement is, it only 'counts' when we perceive it. And often we don't perceive it. One of the most important reasons for this may be that we are so extremely good at adapting to new circumstances. Whenever a situation changes we adapt quickly and take for granted what is now the new reality. This may be why an explanation why we so easily fail to see what's better. Another explanation is that the process of improvement may proceed with ups and downs (see this post on fluctuation). Finally, improvement may be hard to perceive because there will always be new problems, and sometimes severe local problems. So, in sum, improvement is hard to notice but vital.

That is why my candidate for the secret to life is: the capacity to detect improvement. Once we detect it, it is surely easier to feel grateful, which brings us back to Albert Schweitzer.

September 26, 2007

I never thought I'd say this, but ...

The solution-focused principle which was the topic of this post came in handy for me about a week ago. During a workshop on solution-focused coaching I started with an exercise in which I invited participants to exchange in a few minutes with their neighbor a recent experience that had been fulfilling and sparkling to them. It was a large group; about 70 people (working as mentors in schools). Within a matter of seconds the room filled with a cozy sound of chatter which was very pleasant to listen to. People were enthusiastically telling and asking each other about these good moments.

Suddenly I noticed that two gentlemen in the front of the room were just sitting there with their arms folded. They did not talk with each other and looked straight ahead. In a reflex I interpreted their behavior as meaning something like: "I am certainly not going to do this childish rubbish exercise... no way!" For a second or two I wanted to go to them and ask or tell them something. But, just in time, I remembered this and this and I decided to wait and to give them time and room to do and leave what they thought best. Then, I focused again on the rest of the large group and suddenly I could hear the cozy chatter again. After the exercise was over we proceeded with the workshop. One of the two men asked a few questions with a critical undertone rather at the beginning of the workshop. After that I have not really noticed them much.

At the end of the workshop many participants were very enthusiastic. The lady who had organized the meeting walked up to me with a smile. She said: "Did you notice that man in the front, who looked so negative? Well, he came up to me and he said: "I never thought I'd say this.... but I am actually going to try this stuff!"

My favorite solution-focused word

When doing solution-focused conversations, there is one brief word which I often use. It is probably my favorite solution-focused word. It is not How, the word with which many solution-focused questions begin, although it's surely an important word. It is also not 'Wow', the word that Insoo Kim Berg often used (and of which Steve de Shazer said that he never used the word Wow like Insoo used it, by the way). What the word is? It is Aha.... (said curiously and enthusiastically). I tend to use it whenever my client is beginning to describe how he would like things to become and when he is beginning to talk about times when things where already better. Those are the times I often here myself saying somthing like: "Aha, can you tell me a bit more about that?"

September 22, 2007

It is essentially about what has functioned well (not about strengths)

As I said before, I think the emphasis on strengths may be a bit overrated or even misplaced in solution-focused approaches and in Positive psychology. Read for instance this post: How important is the concept of strengths really? The post of yesterday (Solution-focused questions to criminal offenders) quoted Marcus Buckingham who mentioned some good questions which are asked to youth who have broken the law, like Have you made any positive changes in the past? If you would make these changes today, who would be the first to notice these changes? Only after posting this, I noticed something interesting.

The quote remains great but maybe Marcus Buckingham's qualification of the questions misses the point a bit. He calls these 'good strengths based questions'. But it is doubtful if this is a right way of describing the essence of what these questions are. The questions are typical solution-focused questions as in the approach which was developed by the Brief Family Therapy Center of Steve De Shazer and Insoo Kim Berg. My central complaint here is not that Marcus Buckingham (and other positive psychology people) do not refer once in while to solution-focused brief therapy as a great approach which has independently developed. I know for a fact that people like Martin Seligman and David Cooperrider are aware of the solution-focused approach and probably Buckingham does too. And I think it would certainly harm no one if they would refer to it as an interesting independent approach, once in a while ;). My point here is another one.

The questions which Buckingham mentions here do not necessarily refer to strengths. Instead, they refer to what has worked before. It is not certain that the answer to these questions necessarily leads to the discovery of some stable personal strength. What the answer will lead to is to the identification of some behavior which in the past has been successful in a more or less comparable situation. So these are not strengths based questions so much as questions which shine a light on what has functioned well. What has functioned well does not exclusively refer to people only but to the interaction between people and situations. So, again it may be wise to be careful of placing a great emphasis on any kind of fixed labels on people (even if these labels are positive). Here is another reason for that.

Carol Dweck, Stanford professor, has warned against complimenting children for intelligence. Her research shows that praising children for intelligence leads them to fear challenges and makes them feel stupid and discouraged when they fail (read more here). So again, I think the great questions Marcus Buckingham mentions are more about what has functioned well (what has worked well) than about strengths. 'Strengths' puts the focus on the individual person too much, I think. What has worked well puts the focus on the interaction between person and situation and allows for situationism, dynamism and interactionism.

September 20, 2007

Solution-focused questions to criminal offenders

In an new video Marcus Buckingham mentions some nice solution-focused questions:
"If your child breaks the law these days, in the US anyway, he or she will likely be given an strengths based assessment for juvenile justice where there will be asked strengths based questions like Have you made any positive changes in the past? If you would make these changes today, who would be the first to notice these changes? I mean good strengths based questions." (see video here)
Update: By the way, I think Buckingham misses the point by calling these questions 'strengths based'. Here is why.

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