July 12, 2009

Building solution-focused skills through deliberate practice of techniques like scaling questions, desired situation questions and miracle questions

Many students of the solution focused approach at some time or another experience that building solution-focused skills requires quite a bit of effort. At first, they may notice the simplicity of the approach and infer from that that it must be easy to learn to work solution-focused. But as Insoo Kim Berg has often said: the approach is simple but hard to learn. Two things make it hard. One is learning to use techniques like scaling questions, the miracle question, exception seeking questions, coping questions, desired situation questions and so forth. The other thing that makes it hard is that you leave out many things that you may learned before, like looking for causes of problems, finding out who's guilty, asking about feelings, confronting people, etcetera. So building solution-focused skills requires a lot of effort. When I asked Insoo in 2003 whether she was still learning and trying to improve her skills she answered without a moment of hesitation that indeed she was. I asked what it was she was now trying to improve and she answered: "I am trying to make my way of working simpler which is very hard."
In my mind I often compare building solution focused skills with learning to play a musical instrument. This comparison may provide a useful clue about how to become better at practicing the solution-focused approach. As I have written about many times before, researcher Anders Ericsson and his colleagues has found evidence of how people can become expert instrumentalists (and experts in many other fields for that matter). The way this is done is through a process called deliberate practice. Author Geoff Colvin explains that deliberate practice can be described by these five characteristics: 1) It's designed specifically to improve performance, 2) It can be repeated a lot, 3) Feedback on results is continuously available, 4) It's highly demanding mentally, 5) It isn't necessarily much fun. Deliberate practice is hard and not particularly enjoyable because it means you are focusing on improving areas in your performance that are not satisfactory. Thus, it stretches you. If you'll be able to do deliberate practice, you'll benefit by becoming better.
One way of practicing solution-focused skills, which I have found very useful myself, is to take a good book (like Becoming solution-focused in brief therapy, Interviewing for solutions, and Words were originally magic) and search for the dialogues (if you read Dutch you may read one of the many Dutch dialogues we have written in our books and on our sites). Then read those dialogues very slowly. What I would do is read what the client said and cover with a piece of paper what the SF practitioner said. Only after I had thought of how I would reply how the practitioner could respond I would move the paper down a bit to read what the practitioner had actually said. At first this was often a sobering experience. I found it very hard to come up with good responses and was surprised by how effective the responses that were written down in the book were. But practice improves and I became better?
What do you think? How can deliberate practice help to build solution-focused skills?


  1. That's a wonderful ideas, Coert!
    Thanks for sharing!!

  2. Hi Coert,

    I like you notion to learn deliberately by reading the dialogues slowly. I'll have to give that a try. In my haste, i often read very quickly to get the context.

    Another thing that I have done is to focus on a specific skill in using SF. For instance, going into a session with the specific notion of asking questions in a specific way or paying particular attention to the cknowledgeemt and validation of the client. During the course of the session, I will then pay specific attention to the client's responsivity to the way that I have incorporated the aspect of the method that I opted to practice. I am able to notice opportunities to use specific methods in this manner because i am open to the language that would be conducive to using the method. For instance, listening for exceptions so that I can practice exception sequence questions, etc.
    As always, thanks for this thought provoking question.

  3. Kevin, thanks. That is a technique I have applied myself too: focusing on one specific element of Sf. It works great

  4. Coert,

    That's a great learning technique. There's research in psychology that's found something called "the testing effect." Studies have shown that taking tests can cause an increase in recall of material that's 50% greater than not taking a test on the material. And by covering the coaches responses in the book and trying to find an effective response you're actually testing yourself. This means you'll speed up your learning process. I'm actually going to use this technique myself. Thank you for this idea.


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