Several years ago, I viewed the strengths perspective as an approach which had great overlap with the solution-focused approach. This article from 2002 reflects my understanding at that time. Gradually however, my view has changed a bit. I have become more aware of the importance of some of the differences between the strengths movement and the solution-focused approach. On this blog I have written about this shift in my thinking before in this post How important is the concept of strengths really? and in this post It is essentially about what has functioned well (not about strengths). In these posts I have argued that that being effective is essentially more about doing what works than about identifying and applying strengths. The shift in my thinking was stimulated further by the research by Carol Dweck and her colleagues (especially the research mentioned in this post PROCESS PRAISE more effective than TRAIT PRAISE). This research made me worry that the strengths perspective could easily promote a fixed mindset which has some known negative impacts (see here).
This week, I was discussing the issue with a few colleagues and I reflected on this afterwards. I realized that the strengths movement and positive psychology on the one hand and the solution-focused approach on the other differ in some dimensions, which might be described as follows:
1. Standardization versus idiosyncratism: the strengths movement and most positive psychologist currently seem to rely rather strongly on standardization by developing taxonomies and questionnaires. The solution-focused approach relies on an idiosyncratic approach in which there is no need for standard labels and constructs. Instead, each case is viewed as unique.
2. Plan+implement versus Try+learn: positive psychology and the strengths movement usually seem to rely on first measuring, analyzing and diagnosing and then following certain predesigned steps forward. This is a rather linear process relying on explicit knowledge. The solution-focused approach however can be characterized more as a try and learn approach in that it involves taking one step at a time, and respond to the consequences of the actions taken. This is circular and iterative process relying on implicit knowledge. (more about this dimension here).
3. Applying strengths versus doing what works: the strengths movement focuses much on identifying and developing strengths as a route to fulfillment and success. In this sense it seems the strengths movement is rather individualistic in its focus. The solution-focused approach focuses more on the interaction between individual and context. The focus is more on doing what works than on applying strengths per se. Doing what works does not have to involve strengths at all. Doing what works can also simply involve using some situational feature or help by other people or just doing something which helps in that situation (without it having to be some core personal strength).
Having said this, I feel that the solution-focused approach and positive psychology differ more on a practical than on a principle level. If the goal of positive psychology is to understand how individuals and institutions thrive (and to promote this) this would NOT imply a need for high standardization, plan+implement and strengths focus. The goal of positive psychology could also be accomplished by following an idiosyncratic, try+learn and doing what works approach. Granted, the types of generalizable knowledge that would be produced would probably be different.....(hmm, interesting... how would it be different?) Gosh, I would like that... to see a group of positive psychologists who would follow this approach.
Also read: The opposite of mentally breaking people