April 18, 2009

Literally leading from behind

In solution-focused coaching we say we are leading the client from one step behind (Cantwell and Holmes, 1994; De Jong and Berg, 2008). By using this metaphor we want to illustrate how we let the client determine the direction, the content and the pace of the conversation. The client says something and we follow closely. We always stay just one step behind. By asking questions we help the client to keep choosing the right direction and tempo. We are very reluctant to ever overtake the client. Once we´d do that, the client would notice directly that something had changed in the conversation. Instead of working at his pace he´d suddenly have to adjust to ours. Generally that´s disturbing and does not work well. Every now and then we might give the client a ´gentle tap on the shoulder´ for instance when we ask something like: what will be different further down the road? (How will you know you’ll be higher on the scale?).

This metaphor is quite well known in solution-focused circles and many find it very clarifying and helpful. What I must have read years ago but must have forgotten is this little anecdote which I read in the book Becoming solution-focused brief therapy (Walter and Peller, 1992). It shows that in some situations leading from behind can be taken quite literally. Here is the anecdote:

"These situations remind us of a story told by a friend and colleague, Kevin O'Connor. Kevin told us about a nurse who worked in a physical rehabilitation center. Each day, she would take for a walk patients who were still weak and unsure of the strength of their legs and their ability to walk. The nurse would take them by the arm and begin walking with them down the hospital hallway. She learned that as long as she walked just a little bit behind while supporting the patient's arm, the walk seemed to go well. If she was just a little ahead of her patient in the pave of her walking, however, the patient would express uncertainty about walking or say that maybe they were walking too fast. The nurse quickly learned that the walks went better when she was perceived by the patient as just slightly in back, rather than our in front and pulling."

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