April 21, 2010

The solution-focused approach is not about empathic understanding

Is empathy important in the solution-focused approach? Not according to Insoo Kim Berg. Solution-focused coaches are open and accepting to what clients say about their feelings, perceptions and convictions. But it is not the case that the solution-focused approach is very empathic. Insoo Kim Berg has said the following about that: 
"The field has emphasized 'empathic understanding' so everybody strives for this. But that is impossible. I don't ever expect anybody to understand me completely. Sometimes I don't understand myself or I may change my mind. So I think the best we can do is be open to what is said. That is why I emphasize using the client's exact words, instead of paraphrasing. Because when we rephrase what they have said we fit it to our idea of what they mean."


  1. Interesting post. I think when we are "solution focused", empathy is part of the process of coaching, counselling and other helping endeavors although we dont actively strive to elicit it.

  2. The question is: what would happen if solution-focused approach becomes more empathic? :) Would it suffer? Would it be improved?

    I agree that perfect understanding is impossible BUT I see the possibility of deeper understanding as always being available.

    I view NVC and SFC as being very similar in certain ways. For example, when connecting to the needs of a person, the NVC professional uses something somewhat close to the not-knowing posture. His questions are not diagnoses but ways to become "progressively less stupid". They take the form "Are you feeling X because you are needing Y" to which the other can confirm or not. If the need is not found, another plausible need is searched.

  3. Isoo Kim Berg may have said that mindful of the then dominant person-centred approach of which the core conditions (empathy being one of them) are the desired qualities of the therapist, for they underpin the counselling process that help to create a save environment that conducive to growth for the client.

    Whilst it is impossible to see, feel and understand the client's world in its entirety, empathic quality perceived by clients can be reassuring, it helps to establish good rapport and to maintain a trust and open relationhship between counsellor and client. So, regardless of which therapeutic approach we use, the core conditions are fundamental to any helping and caring relationships.

  4. Coert, thank you for this topic! Some 12 years ago I asked my SF trainer Vrata Strnad what SF practitioners need empathy for when we can communicate with the client (and ask them directly). Shortly after, Vrata wrote an excellent article in which he answered my question thoroughly. Now, running my own courses on systemic and SF coaching, I never mention empathy as an ability or skill that is important in a coach. When people talk about importance of empathy and try to paraphrase what the client says I call attention to the client’s behaviour. Very often the client is not comfortable with paraphrasing what they have said- they explain their idea using different words or simply repeat and emphasize their own words. This is a great opportunity to realize that using client’s own words, we can coach more briefly and more respectfully than using empathy and paraphrasing.

  5. This is very interesting. I value empathy and now I see that in SF approach it is considered somewhat contra-productive. I want to better understand this. Is there an article in English better detailing this? :)

  6. Hi Peter, I don't know of an article. Several Sf books touch upon this topic, such as the book interviewing for Solutions. Several article on this blog touch up on it too, such as this one: http://bit.ly/bDmVoI.

    To clarify, the statement is not to deny the existance of empathy or to say it is not important in life but rather to say that SF is not primarily about expressing empathy. Rather it is primarily about working with the perspective of the client.

  7. Hi Coert, this article seams to be helping me a lot more than I thought it would. :)
    It brought up the fact that even if I follow your blog for some time, I'm still quite unfamiliar with the basics of SFC, like "working with the perspective of the client" :)

  8. Hi Peter, I recognize that. Although it is my intention to share everything I know about SF I am painfully aware I'm falling short seriously. There are SO many explanations and details I have never mentioned or been able to explain completely and simply. So, there is still a lot of work to be done, which is a good thing

  9. Hi Coert, I'm biased towards the tools I come to like so take what I'm about to say with a pinch of salt. :)

    A good approach would be a HUGE mind-map. The largest branches could capture the main ideas with progressively smaller branches covering details of specific ideas.
    Here is a Top 10 MindMaps to give you a feel for different styles and approaches to this tool.

    Another approach would be to use time constrains and try to structure your knowledge of Solution-Focused to: a 5 Minutes IGNITE Talk (20 slide at 15 sec. auto-advance), an 18 minutes TED Talk, a 3 hour evening workshop, a full day workshop and a 3 day weekend retreat workshop.

    These constrains would most likely distill your knowledge in a more efficient way.

  10. Hi Peter, Jo Hanssen, from Curacao, whom I have mentioned here http://bit.ly/5MJpN3, has in fact made a large mind map (I think it was in dutch) based on the books I wrote together with Gwenda Schlundt Bodien, my colleague. I'll ask him if I can post it, so that you have a look at it

  11. I wrote a long paper (could be a book but I have never tried to find a publisher) in which I compared and showed the influence in my development of Rogers, Erickson and Berg/De Shazer. Somewhere in time Rogers' concept of "empathy" was lost. He was not talking about the therapist "feeling" and "reflecting: the clients "emotions." He was talking about "getting" and conveying in a way meaningful to the client that the therapist grasped the meaning and significance to the client of what the client was saying. SFT conversations without some interest and ability on the part of the therapist, IMHO, is rarely helpful, and in fact can be abusive.

  12. How is it, in your view, this deeper connection, this connection to needs rather than feelings?


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