April 30, 2008

Help wanted - share what you know

About half a year ago, I 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 still a work in progress. It is quite possible there are some mistakes and ommissions here. So will you help me develop this list further?

April 29, 2008

Indirect compliments

In 1994, INSOO KIM BERG introduced the concept of the indirect compliment. Complimenting indirectly means that you invite the other person through a question to describe what was good about what he or she has done and what has worked well. An example of an indirect compliment is: “Wow, how did you manage to finish that task so quickly?"). I like to call such kinds of questions AFFIRMING QUESTIONS. It is also possible to include the perspective of other people in compliments. An example may be: “What do your colleagues appreciate in how you work?” An advantage of complimenting through questions is that you activate the other person. Also, there is less chance that he or she will feel embarrassed or will turn down the compliment ("It was nothing special"). Instead you challenge the other person and make him or her reflect (“Actually, how did I do that.... let's see.....?”).

The observation task

In solution-focused coaching what has worked well before is used to generate ideas about steps forward in the direction of the desired situation. Coaches ask their clients questions like: ‘When have you been able to solve such a problem before?' or: ‘When were things a bit better? Through questions like these the coach helps the client to remember situations in which he or she has behaved effectively. In most coaching conversations clients succeed in finding examples of these kinds of earlier successes or 'exceptions to the problem'. But every now and then they don't. Sometimes clients say things like: "I just don't know when things were better", or: "Things have never been better". What can you do as a coach when something like that happens? You can apply the solution-focused technique of the observation task (De Shazer, 1988; nowadays often referred to as the 'observation suggestion'). Here is an example of how the observation task can be formulated:
"Could you, between now and our next conversation, pay attention to situations in which things are a bit better? When you notice that things are better, could pay close attention to what is different in that situation and to what you do different yourself? If you try to remember what is different when things are better we can talk about it next time we meet".
The observation task often has a surprisingly strong effect. The question makes them notice more consciously what goes right in their lives. Usually, this helps them become more optimistic and gain more confidence.

April 27, 2008

The ability to function

I'm not sure I really care whether the people are happier or not. It's their ability to function that really matters.

~ Angus Deaton, Source

April 21, 2008

How the brain rewires itself during learning

Some time ago I mentioned JOHN MEDINA's website about his book Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home, and School. I now have the book and I am reading it. It is quite as interesting as I thought it would be. One example of an interesting thing Medina writes about is the following. As readers of this website will know, I am fascinated by Carol Dweck's concept of the GROWTH MINDSET. In the interview I did with her she mentioned in general terms that when people learn new connections form in their brains. I was curious about what John Medina would write about this process. On pages p56 and 57 he writes about this topic. The way in which Medina describes the work by one of the important scientists in this field, Eric Kandel, provides a lively picture of what Carol Dweck means:
"Kandel showed that when people learn something, the wiring in their brains changes. He demonstrated that acquiring even simple pieces of information involves the physical alteration of the structure of the neurons participating in the process. ...[t]he brain is constantly rewiring itself. ... As neurons learn they swell, sway, and split. They break connections in one spot, glide over to a nearby region, and form connections with their new neighbours. Many stay put, simply strengthening their electrical connections with each other, increasing the efficiency of information transfer. You can get a headache just thinking about the fact that deep inside your brain, at this very moment, bits of neurons are moving around like reptiles, slithering to new spots, getting fat at one end or creating split ends."

April 17, 2008

Poll: most frequently used solution-focused techniques

Today the results are in from the poll about the most frequently used solution-focused techniques (click the picture on the right for details). 102 people did the poll and the result is:

1. The scaling question
2. The past success question
3. Reframing
4. Exception seeking questions
5. The indirect compliment
6. The Miracle question
7. Summarizing in the client's words
8. The Coping question
9. The 'what's better?' question
10. Normalizing
11. The usefulness question
12. The observation task
13. The perspective change question
14. The continuation question
15. The prediction task
16. The overcoming-the-urge task

April 14, 2008

Demotivating effects of incentive pay

Many people believe that setting and financially rewarding the attainment of targets increases performance. And however logical this sounds, psychologists have known for long that incentives actually can have a demotivating effect instead of a motivating effect. Timothy Wilson explains the so-called discounting principle in his book Strangers to Ourselves: Discovering the Adaptive Unconscious. The discounting principle describes the human tendency to discount our judgement about the causal role of one factor (for instance intrinsic motivation for playing the piano) when there are other plausible explanations (for instance being rewarded with candy for playing the piano) (Wilson, 2002). In other words: when you 'reward' someone for doing something this may well undermine his intrinsic motivation for the task and hurt his performance too. If this sounds intruiging to you and you want to know more, reader, please check out Punished By Rewards: The Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A's, Praise, and Other Bribes, in which you can read much more about this. You may not have time to read a book. Is there convincing research to be found on the Internet which confirms the existence of this motivation and performance-harming effect of rewarding performance? Sure, here is one example which I came across today.

April 12, 2008

Science and art compared

Albert Einstein was a great admirer of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and I believe I read somewhere he even considered his mind the greatest ever. But what about his own? Wasn't his own mind even greater? Is it even possible to compare artists and scientists in this respect? How do you compare Bach with Newton or Darwin with Beethoven? In a new book by Matt Ridley, Francis Crick: Discoverer of the Genetic Code (Eminent Lives), there is an interesting thought on this matter:
"Crick once told a newspaper reporter (in Hawaii): 'Unlike the jet engine, which had to be invented, the DNA structure was always there.' Scientific discoverers are dispensible in a way that artists are not. Gravity, America, and natural selection would all have been discovered by somebody else if Newton, Columbus, and Darwin had not gotten there first, whereas nobody would have written Hamlet, painted the Mona Lisa or composed the Ninth Symphony if Shakespeare, Leonardo, and Beethoven had not done so. Yet it is precisely because scientists have to be first that their achievement is even more remarkable. Shakespeare did not have to beat Marlowe to the first draft of Hamlet."

April 11, 2008

The usefulness question

A question which is used a lot in solution-focused coaching is the so-called usefulness question (sometimes referred to as the useful-question). The purpose of this question (of course) is to make conversations as useful as possible for those involved. Solution-focused coaches use usefulness questions at the beginning of conversations, during conversations and at the end of conversations.

At the beginning,
of conversations questions like these can be used:
  • How can we make this conversation as useful as possible?
  • What do you want to come out of this conversation?
  • How would you notice afterwards that this conversation has been worth your time?
    During the conversation, questions like these can be used:
    • So far, has this conversation been useful to you?
    • (if yes) What was useful? How was it useful?
    • (if no) What are your ideas about how we can make the conversation more useful?
    • How can we make the remaining time as useful as possible?
      At the end of the conversation, questions like these can be used:
      • Has this conversation been useful to you?
      • How is what we talked about useful to you?
      By posing usefulness questions, it becomes easier for people to focus on what they want to come out of the sessions. By asking the question, they will remember their goals and linking the conversation to these goals. The question has an activating effect. By asking the question people will usually become actively involved in the conversation right away. The interesting thing is that the usefulness question can be applied just as well in one-on-one conversations as in group sessions.

      April 10, 2008

      The 'What's better?' question

      One of the well known solution-focused interventions is the 'What's better?' question (De Shazer, 1986). This question is mainly asked in follow-up coaching sessions (second and later sessions) with clients. The advantage of the 'What's better?' question is that it helps the client to focus on which progress has been made in the past period and on what has worked well. This usually has a motivating effect, often leads to more awareness of what works and to useful ideas about further steps forward. To make the 'What's better?' question as useful as possible, it may be worthwhile to remember the following points:

      1. Dare to ask the question as simple as it is. Many people who first hear about the 'What's better?' question (this includes me) are first a bit reluctant about using this slightly strange question. They think it's a bit awkward (”Isn't it more normal to just ask HOW things are going?") and they fear their client may think the question is strange, too. Well... to be honest, the question is a bit strange indeed. But the thing about is .... it works amazingly well. Years ago, when I was trying to master the basics of the solution-focused approach, I tried to finds ways around the 'What's better?' question in order to try to find a more 'normal' alternative ("Did any interesting things happen since our last conversation?"). But after some time I dared to try out the simple 'What's better?' question. And I was really surprised about the power of the question. Along the way, I discovered that this question really refers to the essence of the coaching process: realizing progress, how do you do that?

      2. Ask probing questions about each example. The value of the answers to the 'What's better?' question is enhanced when you, as a coach, ask probing questions. You keep asking until the situation is described so concretely that is easy to see what happened, what was good about it and how the person has managed to accomplish it. Much more important, however, than that the coach understands this is that the client see this concretely. The questions of the coach are a tool to accomplishing this.

      3. Repeat the question (OFTEN).
      The interesting thing with the 'What's better?' question is that you repeat it often ("What else is better?").Usually you don't just ask it 1,2, or 3 times, but rather 6,7, or 8 times. The surprising thing often is that client indeed manage to mention as many examples as that (encouragement by the coach is important of course). Also, coaches are often surprised to find out that sometimes the most interesting examples of what's better are not the first or the second ones that are mentioned. Sometimes, already 6 examples have been mentioned and then, suddenly, the client mentions a very important improvement, also to his or her own surprise (”Gee, I forgot that has happened but it is actually really important."). On a video tape I once saw a client who mentioned something like 35 things that were better. While the conversation proceeded his smile got bigger and bigger.

      You may ask
      : "but what do you do when the answer is 'Nothing is better!' or 'I have no idea'?" Coaches who want to ask the 'What's better?' question are sometimes worried that their client will answer like that or that they may even say: "What is better? Nothing's better. Everything has gotten worse!” Or that they may be irritated about the 'strangeness' of the question. In answer to this, I like to say two things. One is that although these things may indeed happen, in the majority of the cases they tend not to happen. Most clients do need a few seconds and some encouragement but then, they actually started mentioning improvements. A second thing is that EVEN when the client responds 'negatively' at first, the question may later turn out useful after all. I once had a client who indeed said, with some desperation in his voice: "What's better, things are going WORSE!" Of course, he and I talked about the problem that had happened. After 10, 15 minutes we closed this topic and then I dared to ask, with a curious look in my eyes: “And are there also some small things that are better?” I was a little surprised when, after a few seconds of thought, the client began, with a smile on his face, to give an example of something that had been better. After that, another example followed until he had finally mentioned 6 or 7 examples. Then he said “So, you see, I am really on the right track!". I thought to myself: "Gosh, what an amazing question is the 'What's better?' question."

      April 9, 2008

      Elegant quitting rules

      "There’s no point trying to re-interpret history. Refuse to get drawn into a discussion of the past, and who could have done what (and to whom) differently. It’s about your individual future not your mutual past."

      ~ David Maister in a blog post about some rules for elegantly quitting your job. read it here: Ending the relationship.

      April 7, 2008

      What do you do when your client DOES want you to analyze their problems?

      Many coaches who learn to work solution-focused ask themselves how to respond when a client explicitly asks them to follow an approach that conflicts with the solution-focused approach. For instance, someone recently asked me: "What should I do as a coach when my client tells me he wants to analyze the deeper causes of his current problems?" This is an interesting and logical question because it seems like to solution-focused principles seem to conflict a bit here. On the one hand, solution-focused coaching focuses on analyzing what worked well instead of analyzing problem causes. Following this principle you should say 'no' to this client's request. On the other hand, however, the solution-focused coaches work as much as possible with the perception and preference of the client. Following this principle, perhaps you should go along with the request of this client. What is wisdom?

      Whoever wants to become a skillful solution-focused coach is advised to have copy of the book Becoming Solution-Focused In Brief Therapy on his or her shelf, maybe the best book ever written about the solution-focused approach. True, this book is about therapy but it is also very useful for coaches. What do the authors of this book, John Walter en Jane Peller, say about this dilemma?

      On page 48 they write: "Of course, our agenda is to help our clients reach what they want -their goal or their solution. If it becomes apparent to us that the client wants something we do not do or cannot provide, then we say so and sometimes end the therapy. If someone asks for intensive, psychoanalytic psychotherapy or states that he of she just wants someone to talk to, we might state that we do not do that and see if we can agree on some other acceptable goal. .... We are very upfront and direct about what we are about, which is helping people construct solutions in as short a time as possible."

      April 3, 2008

      The dangers of hate

      "Like an unchecked cancer, hate corrodes the personality and eats away its vital unity. Hate destroys a man's sense of values and his objectivity. It causes him to describe the beautiful as ugly and the ugly as beautiful, and to confuse the true with the false and the false with the true."

      April 2, 2008

      How did they do it ? (2)

      Some time ago I wrote the post How did they do it? In it I asked readers for help to answer the question of how people at the the Brief Family Therapy Center developed the solution-focused aproach inductively. What I did not see precisely is how they noticed and decided that something worked. What exactly did they pay attention to and when? Meanwhile I have received some help from insiders like Wally Gingerich, Eve Lipchik, Alasdair Macdonald, Peter DeJong, Michele Weiner-Davis, Brian Cade, Daniel Gallagher, Gale Miller, and Kate Kowalski. It was great hearing from these people their accounts about what happened. each one of them provided some interesting pieces of this puzzle. Most of them shared their stories with joy and enthusiasm. One of them refered to this period as one of the most intellectually stimulating times of his career.

      Here is how I have tried to summarize and integrate what they have told me about how the solution-focused approach was developed in the early eighties:

      De Shazer and Berg started their practice in 1978 and called it the Brief Family Therapy Center (BFTC). Original members of the BFTC team were Jim Derks, Marvin Weiner, Elam Nunnally, Eve Lipchik, Alex Molnar and Marilyn LaCourt. After that therapists like Wally Gingerich, Michele Weiner Davis, John Walter, Kate Kowalski, Ron Kral, Gale Miller, Scott Miller and Larry Hopwood joined (Cade, 2007). All these people have contributed in one way or another to the development of the solution-focused approach. De Shazer and Berg and their colleagues hardly had any money so they started off in their own living room. Only later were they able to hire an office. Their mission was to find out what worked in therapy. They did not want to take a specific theory as a starting point. Instead, they wanted to build knowledge about what worked in therapy inductively. They started of by identifying traditional elements of therapy and removing one element at a time from sessions. Then they observed whether the client outcome had been affected by the removal of this element. They discovered that analyzing and diagnosing problems could be removed from the therapeutic conversation without negative consequences for client outcomes. In addition to the approach of systematically removing traditional element of therapy they did several other things. One thing was that they were actively studied therapeutic "accidents" or spontaneous events in therapeutic conversations. When the therapist or the client did something that seemed to work, they discussed that and they tried it again. While trying to figure out what worked, they observed clients during actual conversations and videotaped conversations. They looked for interventions that helped clients to formulate more clearly what they wanted to achieve, that helped the client to become more confident in their possibilities and that helped to identify ideas for steps forward. Each intervention that made clients become more aware of what they wanted to achieve, more optimistic, hopeful, energetic and full of ideas, was written down, discussed by the team and used more often. As the model developed, the client's voice became a more and more important criterion. Each time a client reported that some intervention had led to a positive change they considered that intervention useful. They equated ‘what worked’ with what the client found useful. In addition to this, they did occasional quantitative studies to find out about the effectiveness of interventions (Weiner-Davis, De Shazer & Gingerich, 1987), attempts to formalize the approach into an expert system (the BRIEFER project, Gingerich & De Shazer, 1991) and several qualitative studies. They identified many interventions that often worked well which helped them build a set of solution-focused tools. But they also did another important discovery. They learned that what worked well with one person did not necessarily with the next person. This made them realize how important it was to pay close attention to how clients responded to whatever happened during the conversation and to use this. Between 1978 and 1985 the basis was created for what is now known as the solution-focused approach.

      April 1, 2008

      The Cult of Statistical Significance (2)

      I have expanded last week's post about The Cult of Statistical Significance a bit. I particular, I have added an answer to this question: how can an effect be important that is not statistically significant?

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