April 8, 2011

10 misconceptions of solution-focused coaching: 5) If someone does not want to change it is not useful to have a solution-focused conversation with that person

Here is #5 of my 10 misconceptions of solution-focused coaching: "If someone does not want to change it is not useful to have a solution-focused conversation with that person".

When clients are motivated to bring about change in their situation and are willing to discuss this with a solution-focused helper we speak of a customer-typical interaction between that client and the helper. When this is the case clients see the usefulness of the conversation, welcome help and are prepared to take steps to improve their situation. But not all clients who go into coaching or therapy are voluntary clients who are self-motivated to change. Both in therapy and coaching there are often clients who are involuntary clients or so-called mandated clients. In coaching, an example may be an employee who is demanded by his manager to go into coaching to help solve some problem or accomplish some goal. In therapy a client may be court-mandated, for instance in the case of domestic violence offenders. When this is the case we speak of a visitor-typical interaction between helper and client. There are also clients who see the usefulness of the conversation with the helper but they behave helpless and they complain. In this case we speak of a complainer-typical interaction between helper and client. These clients may not want to change their own behavior but rather want other people or circumstances to change.

Can solution-focused practitioners work well with these kinds of clients when they are not self-motivated to change? Often people assume the answer is 'no' but the answer is 'yes'. In order to work well with involuntary clients and complaining clients it is very important to go slow and pay close attention to their perspective. When there is a visitor typical interaction a good way to start is to start by exploring the reason why the person is there with you. Was it their choice or did someone else suggest of demand the visit? What was the reason the other person wanted this? What is the clients view on this? When the client does not agree it may be very useful to explore the reason why he or she did decide to come anyway. When there is a visitor typical interaction going on between client and helper it is extra important to acknowledge the perspective of the client and to work with what the client says and wants. Accentuating the choice of the client may be essential for building a co-operation. Here is an example of a fragment of a solution-focused conversation with a convicted domestic violence offender who was not motivated for a treatment program which a judge had ordered him to attend: Emphasizing choice.

When there is a complainer typical interaction between client and helper all of the above things are also important. In addition to this it often works well to bring the topic in the sphere of influence of the client. The client may feel powerless and feel that there is nothing he or she can do to improve the situation, for instance because someone else is behaving badly. Two types of questions may help to help these clients see that their own behavior plays a role both in the problem and in the solution. The first type of question is: "How is this a problem to you?" This type of question usually helps clients to see how the problematic situation keeps them from doing things they would like to do. The second type of questions is: "What will you be able to do when this problem will be solved?" Here is a simple example of how a coach interacts with a complaining client: Past present future X negative positive.

As conversations evolve so do people's views and motivations. By taking people and what they want very seriously they tend to open up for you and your questions. When they start to consider different perspectives on their situation they will usually start to develop a more motivated, realistic and constructive perspective. This table summarizes the above: Solution-Focused Interaction Grid.


  1. I have one point to add:
    We usually cannot tell if our SF interaction (or lack of it) is has any effect after the imposed intervention. I personally experienced a team member in a session who kept an 'arms-folded' stance for most of the SF based session. I was later told that despite their visible resistance in a previous session, the person had later acted quite openly on some of the ideas discussed.

  2. Hi Alan, I am glad you add this point. This is what happens often. In 2003 I was in a session which was led by Insoo Kim Berg. Nearly all of the group members who where present were energetic and hopeful, except for one member who frowned a bit was silent. When I talked to Insoo about this afterward, I asked what she thought about the frowning quiet person. Insoo said these words which I will never forget and which I often think about: "She might not get it now. She might get it later." I have seen this so often in practice. People who seem reluctant or even resistant during the conversation are sometimes people who carry on thinking about the topic after the conversation is over and who sometimes, maybe quite unexpectedly, become very enthousiastic.


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