April 20, 2011

10 misconceptions of solution-focused coaching: 8) The solution-focused approach does not work with young children and people who are verbally weak

Here is #8 of my 10 misconceptions of solution-focused coaching: "The solution-focused approach does not work with young children and people who are verbally weak".

Language plays a crucial role in solution-focused conversations
In all the essential stages of solution-focused conversations language plays a crucial supportive role. Through language clients try to explain what they expect of conversations, what may be bothering them, what they would like to achieve, what has already been achieved, what has been achieved, and what next step they might take. Solution-focused coaches know that the way things are said often has very specific meanings for the client so they try to match the language of the client by using the key words of the client. Experienced solution-focused professionals are skillful in the use of their own language. They say things that make the client feel appreciated and understood, they may reframe what the client has said, and they ask carefully crafted questions which help the client make progress. Mo Yee Lee, John Sebold and Adriana Uken, authors of the book Solution-Focused Treatment of Domestic Violence Offenders: Accountability for Change describe how carefully solution-focused professionals use language as follows: "People who use conversation to facilitate change should be as serious about words as musicians are about notes".

The approach also works with clients with limited verbal ability
That language is important in solution-focused conversation does not mean that the language the client produces does not have to meet certain quality criteria. The client does not have to produce grammatically correct language or beautifully phrased narratives for the approach to be effective. No matter how limited the vocabulary of client is or how slow they may go or how many mistakes they may make we can always work with that. A coach whom I have trained wanted to ask the miracle question to an eight year old child and worried whether the child would be able to answer it, saying: "He will never be able to answer that question, it is much too hard!" I reassured her and suggested she'd give it a try. Afterwards she was surprised with how easily the child had answered the question and how helpful that had been. Sometimes our own low expectations may keep us from trying things which might have been very useful. Another point is that certain things may make working with children easier. Swedisch solution-focused special education teachers Kerstin Måhlberg and Maud Sjöblom once said to me: "We think it is much easier to apply the SF model with children. Adults are often weighed down with earlier experiences and are used to search for causes of problems. Very rarely do pupils ask for an explanation of their problems like most adults do. Instead they are looking for solutions to problems by actually testing out different approaches and finding out what works for them. Children like to talk about what they are good at, what they like to achieve and their fantasy is at close quarters."

It even may work with clients with extremely limited verbal skills
Very young children may have very limited language skills. Some solution-focused practitioners have been very inventive in the way they talk with these children. For instance they may visual supports to clarify questions (for example scaling questions with smileys) or they may toys and role-plays. Another example of clients with very limited verbal skills is when clients are mentally retarded. A very experienced solution-focused therapist recently told me he works with such children at present: "Solution-focused care may help him if he has language, even if he only uses signs. Staff can learn to look for exceptions and successes which helps both them and him. If he has autistic elements then strategies aimed at reducing his uncertainty and acknowledging his fears might help (Now we do this, next we do ...... Choose if you want bread now or biscuit now.)"

The fact that solution-focused practitioners are extremely patient, take whatever clients say seriously and don't    confront or correct clients may be extra attractive for clients with very limited verbal skills. The 'slowness' of the solution-focused process may be something they often miss in conversations with other people.

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