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.

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