April 5, 2011

10 misconceptions of solution-focused coaching: 1) In solution-focused conversations it is not useful to talk about problems

Some time ago I posted 10 misconceptions of solution-focused coaching. I got a few requests to explain a bit more about each of the points mentions on the list. I'll start with misconception No. 1: "In solution-focused conversations it is not useful to talk about problems".

Solution-focused conversations are more about solution-talk than about problem-talk
The solution-focused approach clearly has a positive focus. Solution-focused practitioners help their clients develop a clear picture of what they want to achieve and facilitate a process of solution-building. Here is an example of how a solution-focused practitioner is constantly helping to shift the focus of the conversation from negative to positive: Past present future X negative positive. One way of explaining how solution-focused conversations work is by the distinction between problem-talk and solution-talk. Steve de Shazer, co-developer of solution-focused brief therapy, once said: "Problem talk creates problems, solution talk creates solutions!" Briefly, the idea behind this statement is that asking questions about how and why problems have developed can inadvertently lead to more problem talk. Asking about who did what wrong and why is risky, indeed. People might interpret these types of questions as attacks and they may become defensive and hostile. Also, the search for problem causes often seems to escalate because one can keep going on endlessly asking why things went wrong. When problem talk goes on and on, the client's hope may be undermined.

But talking about problems is not taboo and can certainly be useful
It is fair to say that solution-focused practitioners focus more on solution-talk than on problem-talk. But it is not true that there is no place in solution-focused conversation to talk about problems. Insoo Kim Berg, also a co-developer of solution-focused brief therapy once said: "Just because I am solution focused does not mean that I am problem phobic". For at least two reasons it can be very useful to talk about problems. The first reason is that it helps to learn about how clients perceive their situation and to give them some room to express their views and feelings. This is likely to help clients to feel taken seriously and to build a good cooperation. The second reason is that it helps to determine specifically what the focus of the solution-focused process should be. When clients explain what the problem is and how it is a problem and in which situations it is a problem to them, this may be a very good step to start building a clear picture of the desired situation. This post described how solution-focused practitioners help direct the attention from negative to positive in conversations: Redirecting attention from negative to positive in 3 small steps (P®C®O).

How you talk about problems is what determines its usefulness
It is good to remember that improvement often starts with the acknowledgement of a sense of dissatisfaction. When we are dissatisfied and we understand what precisely we are dissatisfied with we have a reason to start thinking about how we would like things to be different and to start searching for solutions. In that sense, talking about problems can be highly useful. It may be very useful to ask what the problem is and how it forms a problem. But the type of problem-talk which often seems less useful in complex situations is to ask why the problems are there and what and who caused them.


  1. This is my first visit to your blog, so not too familiar with your usual topics or style.

    Enjoyed the post and was wondering if you have ever studied Thomas Aquinas? Not that his work would be at all relevant here, but your writing style mirrors his quite closely!

    Thomas works in this rubric:
    On the Contrary
    Reply to Objections

    Will stay tuned.


  2. Dear Christina, thanks for your comment. No, I have studied Thomas Aquinas. But your response makes me curious :)

  3. Great article. Solution focus uses strenghts that are already there, so you discuss solutions and not problems. But you can scope the discussions so that you will find solutions that solve your problem.


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