January 24, 2011

Working within the client's frame of reference

Solution-focused practitioners will not confront their client but will keep on working with whatever their clients bring forward. They are very optimistic about both the ability and the intention of clients to develop an ever more realistic perspective while conversations proceed. Solution-focused professionals work within the client's frame of reference. They don't confront of blame clients and do not impose their expert view on the client. They do this because they assume it will be the quickest and most promising approach to help clients develop an ever more constructive, realistic and useful perspective.

Non-confrontational influencing
What is the reason for taking so seriously what the client says? Roughly since the 1960's there has been a growing attention for client directedness in psychotherapy and several other helping professions. Solution-focused practice takes this principle of client-directedness probably further than any other approach (here is an example). Solution-focused professionals do not confront their clients and do not 'hold a mirror' in front of their clients. Instead, they ask questions about what clients want and what might help and they work only with what their clients say and believe. Several concepts illustrate how solution-focused coaches work with whatever their clients present, such as leading from one step behind, the not-knowing attitude and language matching. By non-confrontational influencing solution-focused professionals help clients develop a more realistic, constructive and useful perspective.

Advantages of working with clients' perceptions
Working with clients' perceptions has some important advantages. When coaches take very seriously what clients bring forward, (1) clients will generally feel understood, (2) will experience safety and (3) will perceive the conversation as relevant. Also, (4) it will be likely that this being taken seriously will help to quickly build a good relationship between coach and client. When such a conversational setting is achieved (5) clients are likely to open up and become more creative which will help them discover new and useful perspective and solutions. Because (6) clients will have found these perspectives and solutions themselves they are likely to last longer. A more confrontational style of intervening by coaches may not work so well because clients may get irritated or defensive (read here why), may feel their coach does not really understand, may start to feel worse about themselves, etc. It can be highly threatening to be confronted. Philosopher Daniel Dennett once said something which explains this: "You seldom talk anybody out of a position by arguing directly with their premises and inferences."

How is it possible to help clients without being allowed to confront them?
How do solution-focused professional facilitate this process in which clients discover new perspectives? How can clients discover new possibilities and opportunities? Here is how that works. By (1) working with whatever the client presents solution-focused coaches create a basis of trust and openness with the conversation. Clients open up and feel understood. They are then (2) invited to say what's relevant to them which is highly motivational. Next, (3) they are invited to describe how they would like their circumstances to become. Once they start to see what their preferred future looks like, they become more positive, hopeful and creative. When (4) solution-focused coaches ask them what they have already done that has worked their hopefulness is further supported. When (5) solution-focused professionals patiently and enthusiastically ask more details about situations in their past that have been better, and when (6) they give appreciative feedback on these, clients get more and more insight into what they can do that may help them to take steps forward. When (7) solution-focused professionals invite them to choose small steps forward their sense of autonomy and competence is further supported. In a tender and non-confrontational manner solution-focused coaches have helped client to change their perspective on their reality and to identify things that may help. At no point in this process were confrontations needed. Paradoxical but true.

Congruence between the approach and the way it is made available to other people
Sometimes solution-focused professionals get so enthusiastic about the approach that they want to start 'selling' it to their colleagues: "This is great, you should try this too". While this is usually well meant, the other person is often hearing a different message: "Your way of working is wrong, you should work differently and I am going to tell you how!" If you want to make the solution-focused approach available for other people you're advised to use a strategy that is congruent with the approach itself. In other words, don't sell it, be non-confrontational. Instead, be inviting and respectful. Leave people who are not yet interested alone and continue to do what works. Once they start showing interest, teach them.


  1. Curt - I think you should watch this - perhaps you know about it, but I
    think that addressing the poor or misplaced use of solution focused techniques is worth
    mentioning somewhere in your writings: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GdBG8kT5OBA

  2. Hi Jim, I have not heard about this. I'll have a look. What are your thoughts on this?

  3. In viewing the video, I see they are discussing solution focused therapy ... which, I believe is very different from solution focused coaching. So what I'm saying here is that the term "solution focused professionals" may need some further clarification. As a solution-focused coach watching the video, I could see that the technique was not being used properly from a "coach's" point of view, but may be quite appropriate from a "therapist's" point of view.


Enter your email address:

Delivered by FeedBurner