April 14, 2011

10 misconceptions of solution-focused coaching: 6) Solution-focused work is fundamentally different from every other approach

Here is #6 of my 10 misconceptions of solution-focused coaching: "Solution-focused work is fundamentally different from every other approach".

SF is different from main stream change approaches
I think we can safely say that the solution-focused approach is rather different, in several aspects, from main stream approach to coaching and problems solving. Some notable differences are the following: 1) solution-focused helpers generally do not search for causes of problems and do not try to form a diagnosis for problematic behavior but help clients construct positive goals and help them move towards those goals, 2) solution-focused helpers generally do not offer advice but helps clients to identify solutions themselves which are rooted in their own experience, 3) solution-focused helpers do not do not suggest a change process according to a predetermined blueprint approach but an small steps approach which can be described as a test-and-learn approach.

SF overlaps with many other approaches
While the solution-focused approach is not mainstream and still relatively unknown it is not entirely unique. For instance, an important inspiration for the solution-focused approach can be found in the work of Milton Erickson, who was also a main inspiration for an approach called NLP. While I am not very familiar with NLP, many people have explained to me that it overlaps with SF in several ways. Another example is appreciative inquiry. This approach evolved roughly in the same period as SF and is similar in several ways, too. Like SF, it was, among other things, inspired by social constructionism. A final example is positive psychology which also shares several principles with SF. Positive psychology developed, perhaps, a bit later that the other approaches and some think it may have been partly inspired by these approaches. But certainly positive psychology was also based on developments within psychology as can be seen from certain precursors within psychology, like the work of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi on Flow.

Reasons for overlap
I think there are two reasons why approaches like SF are not completely unique. One reason is that good ideas often emerge and evolve at different place at roughly the same time. Often, the time seems right for certain ways of thinking. Another reason is that as approaches evolve, they tend to influence each other. I am sure that pioneers of each of the approach I mentioned here to some extend knew about the work of the others. Steve de Shazer, for example, read and recommended the work of some NLP pioneers. Another example is motivational interviewing which emerged from medical practice and which in the way it evolved is partly influenced by SF.

Everything evolves; and so does the solution-focused approach
Any set of ideas and principles which remains vital, from religions to political ideologies to change approaches, evolves all the time. The same is the case with the solution-focused approach. Each time solution-focused practitioners apply solution-focused principles and techniques there will be some deliberate and accidental variations which will lead to new discoveries and adaptations. Each time eclectic practitioners experiment with combination of aspects of different approaches they may discover new things that work. In addition to this, environments will continue to change and will place ever evolving demands on us which will shape change approaches in unexpected ways.

It seems wiser to embrace this evolutionary view than to try to protect the solution-focused approach from outside influences or to conserve the way it has once been defined.


  1. I constantly tell people who want to learn to use solution focus in organizations that they don’t have to abandon or change the models they already use.

    My recommendation is they add SF to their toolbox and that they will become even better in serving their clients with the blend of approaches.

    But, I do warn them that they will soon start questioning some of their previously well-regarded tools and gradually find SF is the primary instrument in their toolbox.

  2. That is how it went with many of us (if not all of us) as well, isn't it?

  3. Hi Coert, interesting post. I'm not into "proof-texting" or "Insoo said ... " and, of course, SF evolves. Here are my 2,3 cents:

    Many words (in use) are delimited by their opposite. We don't know what somebody is telling us when they say "I have a depression" but we can find out what "non-depression" looks like for that person and work on it. We have to negotiate and co-construct the meaning of non-depression with the client. There are then "more-or-less-surprising", marked or unmarked usages of the client. If the client said: "I'd notice I was less depressed, if I was crying the whole day", then this would be "surprising", a marked usage of the word. While we do co-construct meanings anew in each interaction, each word does bring with it its history from other usages.

    In a similar way, when we use the word "Solution Focused Approach", we have to negotiate what that word means for the person using it before we can talk about it sensibly (reducing the inevitable misunderstandings). Just as with "depression", "Solution Focused Approach" is delimited by "Non-Solution-Focused Approach". We don't know what an SF practitioner will do in an interview -- there are no rules and prescriptions, it's from answer to question to answer. But we do know what the practitioner will tend not to do: Start by asking about the problem, diagnose, prescribe behaviour, analyze the issue or personality of the client. If the practitioner choses any of these activities, it would be a "marked" usage of Solution Focus. If then many Solution Focused practioners adopt this marked behavior, it might become "standard repertoire" and therefore unmarked.

    Another issue is the consistency with SF literature -- I'm not saying you cannot introduce the analysis of causal inner mechanisms into SF (for example), but if you do, it would be nice to note the break with the tradition.

    kind regards,


  4. Hi Kirsten,

    Thanks for your thoughts. Here are some thoughts I have after reading them.

    These things you mention show (I think) how temporary of perhaps even arbitrary it may seem what we call 'solution-focused'. We may now roughly agree on an operational definition of what working solution-focused is but this may shift.

    Even the name may be subtly changed and actually is often subtly changed. Do we call what 'those professionals' do SFBT? SF?, solutions focused? Solutions Focus? Solutions-based, solutions oriented? solution-focused change? Brief coaching? solution-building?

    Are all of these exactly the same? Do they differ? How precisely? What other names will be presented in the future? What do these differences and dynamics represent?

    I think it is largely a matter of agreement which enables us to speak of 'this approach' as a distinct approach. Reasons for making these agreements are often practical more than principle. What it is is not fixed by nature at all. It is not like a water molecule we are defining.


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