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.

Solution-focused schools

I am doing more and more workshops in the educational sector. The solution-focused approach seems very appropriate there. Some time ago I interviewed Kerstin Måhlberg and Maud Sjöblom, authors of Solution-focused education. Here is a quote from that interview:
"Employing the Solution-focused practice as a method in the world of education is a relatively new phenomenon. The SF model has clear pedagogical elements, and is an alternative to the more traditional mediation-based approach to teaching. SFE offers a different way of solving problems and consist of an approach and a conversation methodology. The teacher builds solutions jointly with her pupils, fostering their individual resources and goals. The teacher focuses particularly on pupils´ positive behaviour rather than the negative, and supports them through encouragement and positive feedback. By focusing on what works and giving a lot of feedback to the pupils when they are on the right track, gain new energy to make further effort. For us, the solution-focused model has become a new way of thinking, in which the use of constructive conversation focuses on whatever generates hope and success, rather than on problems and their possible causes. It is a way of working that is more effective, more efficient, and altogether superior to our “old” ways. When the SF way of thinking and working is implemented in a School, we know that what will be experienced by everyone concerned, will not only be a more effective place of learning, but also an environment from which its teachers derive the deepest satisfaction."

September 16, 2007

The flowers and the mountain peak

"The person who's happy is able to focus on the peak while enjoying the flowers." This is a quote taken from this interview with Dr. Tal Ben-Shahar. He is the author of the new book Happier and the teacher of Positive Psychology at Harvard Unversity. Later in the interview he described the essence of this nice metaphor as follows: "We need to find a balance between what will work in the long term and what will provide us pleasure right now." To me that seems to be a key challenge: to find activities that are rewarding both in the long and in the short term. I have found some activities which actually seem to have this quality. They are enjoyable in the moment and have long term benefits. Reading and writing are among them. Have you found such activities too?

September 14, 2007

Practising a positive No

Some time ago I have interviewed William Ury about his new book The positive No. The skill he describes in this book comes very handy these days. I am getting way more requests for work than my schedule can take. It's a good opportunity to practise my No-saying skills. If you don't know what the positive No is, here is a brief description: "To deliver a positive No, you first uncover your underlying interests, needs, and values and distill them into a powerful Yes! Perhaps the biggest mistake we make when we say No is to start from No. We derive our No from what we are against—the other's demand or behavior. A Positive No calls on us to do the exact opposite and base our No on what we are for. The next step is to deliver your No clearly and respectfully." Read full article.

September 11, 2007

Another ancient solution-focused gem

Japanese solution-focused coach and trainer Aoki Yasuteru came up with the following ancient solution-focused gem:

"Here is another old one from Buddha; If a man is shot by a poinsoned arrow and says "Don't take this arrow away before you find out exactly by who and from where and how it was shot." This man's death is inevitable.

If you're his family or relative you surely will take the arrow away and take him to the doctor at once. In a similar way if a disciple says "Unless the master clearly tells me if the world is ever-present or never-present, I will not be able to discipline myself." This man's death is also inevitable. Since the master is enlightened and therefore does not explain, this man waits for the poison to take his life away.

Buddha was encouraging people to take actions instead of spending too much energy on futile problem-focused discussion or rigid intellectualism."

Antecedent of the solution-focused approach

Solution-focused consultant Klaus Schenck from Germany send me this quote:

"Man shall make use of those things as far as they help him towards his goal, and let go of them as far as they inhibit this."

- Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the jesuit order, around 1530

As Klaus says: this sounds much like the solution-focused principle "if it works, do more of it, if not, let go of it (and do something else instead)".

September 10, 2007

Positive expressions in conversations

Christine Tomori and Janet Beavin Bavelas have micro-analyzed conversations of four distinguished therapists, client-centered therapists Carl Rogers, and Nathanial Raskin and solution-focused therapists Steve de Shazer and Insoo Kim Berg (read their article). Micro-analysis is interesting because it does not focus on the theories or assumptions behind models but it shows you what practitioners actually do in conversations with their clients. One of the things Tomori and Bavelas compared is the occurance of negative and positive expressions by the four therapists. They found the solution-focused therapists use much more positive and much less negative expressions (see figure below and click on table above left for details).

September 7, 2007

What can you realistically expect from the solution-focused approach?

Of course there are many skeptics of the solution-focused approach but there also seems to be another category of people. I have noticed some people expect rather a lot of the solution-focused approach. They expect it to be:
  1. very easy to learn and apply, 
  2. always applicable and 
  3. making everything different and better. 
Some go even further and express ideas like
  1. SF needs to be promoted aggressively within all organizations, 
  2. solution-focused practitioners are more different (always positive, friendly, fair and wise), 
  3. a new paradigm (or cosmic consciousness) is now growing which will make everything better. 
Is any of this true? Not if you ask me. I think these expectations are way too high because:
  1. Utopia does not exist and will never exist; no situation in life will ever be or remain problem free, 
  2. cure-alls don't exist: there is no method at all which is always applicable and suitable for any kind of problem, 
  3. it is rather easy to make a beginning with the use of SF but it is not at all that easy to master it. 
  1. I believe SF should not be promoted aggressively (there is a difference between telling people about SF and inviting them to try it out and pushing them to use it; the latter will probably not work), 
  2. my experience is, solution-focused practitioners are just the same as anybody else, 
  3. my suggestion is to not get carried away by the promise of methods like SF and appreciative inquiry. 
Instead let's follow a step-by step approach and further discover what positive change approaches like SF, AI etc will have to offer. In my view solution-focused change is:
  1. a respectful and goal oriented approach to reach fast improvement, usually in a pleasurable way, 
  2. originally developed in psychotherapy now successfully applied in many contexts, 
  3. easy to start using, hard to master, 
  4. fun to apply.

September 6, 2007

Work with the green people

In a new book on SF there is an interesting chapter by Mona Hojab: Simple steps and trojan mice. One of the topics she covers is: what do you do with the cynics when you want to start a change process in your organization? Her reccommendation is: work with the green people:
"When you want to make progress, working with the people who want to see change is a good place to start. In a traffic-light inspired metaphor, we call this working with the green people - as opposed to the amber people (who are not sure yet but will probably join in) or the red people (who are definitely not keen). Things start to happen, and the resulting news of progress will encourage engagement by others."

September 5, 2007

Antecendents of the solution-focused approach

Granted, Steve de Shazer and Insoo Kim Berg were the main originators of the solution-focused approach as we know it now. But just like SF keeps on developing currently, it also has had its antecendents, sometimes in far pasts. Some of the predecessors of the solution-focused approach have in many publications been mentioned like Milton Erickson, Gregory Bateson, Ludwig Wittgenstein, John Weakland, Jay Haley, Paul Watzlawick, and Kenneth Gergen. Occasionally, someone from a more distant past has been mentioned as a direct influence on the development of the solution-focused approach, like William of Ockham, Confucius and Lao Tzu. I like to find more sources. I am convinced ingredients of the solution-focused approach have been around for a long time. I have found remarks by people like Winston Churchill, Niels Bohr, Leonardo da Vinci, Blaise Pascal, and even Bruce Lee, which fit very well with some aspect of the approach. I have a question for you, reader: do you know of other antecedents of the solution-focused approach? (philosophers, statesmen, authors, scientists, .....). Let me know...

On persuasion

People are generally better persuaded by the reasons which they have themselves discovered than by those which have come into the minds of others.
- Blaise Pascal

September 3, 2007

How do you know you are on the right track?

"Thomas Edison practised 9,999 times to succeed! How did he know that he would succeed? Was it his optimism or his confidence? Who would try doing something 10,000 times?" This quote is taken from this article. I find this such an interesting theme. How do you know you are being persistent and doing just what is required to succeed in the end or just being stupid and chasing an impossible dream or running down a dead end street?

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