July 5, 2007

The seven steps approach (step 2): Defining the desired state

After the need or desire for change has been made explicit, the solution-focused practitioner takes a positive turn. Once it is understood how a situation is problematic, the question is asked how we would like things to be. This is done in order to help the client to start formulating his goal. Clients, whether they are individuals in personal coaching or organizations helped by management consultants, are viewed as both able and responsible to determine their own goals. With the exception of goals that violate law or ethics, the client’s choice of goals is respected. That the client is free to choose his own goals is very supportive of the change process because the motivation for change will be greatest when you can choose the direction of that change yourself. The coach or consultant does not argue with the client about what he wants to achieve. Instead, he helps the client to make specific what it is he wants to achieve. There are many possible terms for positively formulated change goals. Here are a few good examples: Desired outcomes / Desired success / The desired future / The future perfect / The goal / The desired state / The dream. I think all of these terms may work well. Some authors call the outcome of the change process ‘the solution’. Personally, I'd rather reserve the term ‘solution’ for anything that helps you reach the desired state and I'd rather not use it to describe the state itself. Suppose, I have found out that asking my colleague how his weekend was helps me to develop a more pleasant working relationship with him. In this example I'd call asking the question how the weekend was a solution, and the more pleasant working relationship, the desired outcome (or the success, goal, etc.).

I believe that one of the main reasons people fail to change successfully is because they define their goals ineffectively. Sometimes goals are vague or negative; sometimes they are by definition unachievable. Well-formed goals are an important step towards achieving success, which is illustrated beautifully in the following quote by Robert Ardrey (1970): “While we pursue the unattainable, we make impossible the realizable.” The next table contrasts unachievable and achievable goals.

Here are three ways of helping clients to develop achievable goals:
  1. Leapfrogging: when clients keep talking about the problem or about some prefered approach you may inveite them to leap directly to the desired state by asking something like: how will things be better when the problem is solved?
  2. From emotional states to visible behavior: When people express themselves in emotional terms the solution-focused consultant will ask questions to help the person to take the shortest route to translate them to positive and specific behaviors so that the outcomes desired will be very specific.
  3. Perspective-change technique: With this technique you basically ask the question: ‘How would others notice that things were different?’ This helps makes it easier for people to take a wider angle and to look at their situation more objectively.
  4. Visualizing desired outcomes: a great way to help clients form specific goals is to ask them to describe the desire situation als vivid and visual as possible.

Related: The seven steps approach / The seven steps approach (step 1): Clarifying the ...

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