Guest post by Paolo Terni, PCC, firstname.lastname@example.org
I have been coaching this client on and off for many years now. An executive, I met him for the first time when I was fresh off the Solution-Focused training and I was discovering its power in coaching conversations. So I was eager to try Solution-Focus on him, too - I listened eagerly to his problem talk, waiting for an opening. Sure enough, there was one and I asked about it, trying to shift to solution talk. He quickly answered, and then went on to describe the numerous downsides of that one positive exception to the problem. Undeterred, I tried again. And again. It was frustrating. It was a dance that went nowhere - me trying to highlight the positive, he bringing the conversation back to what was not working. How come he did not accept my invitations for solution talk? Even after I listened to him for a long time? Why was he dismissing my remarks about positive occurrences as a way to sugarcoat the reality?
I struggled with it for two or three sessions - to the point that I shifted to a more directive, behaviorally inspired model of coaching. Then it finally hit me: solution-focus is not even about solution talk. Solution-focus is about what works for the client. Obviously solution talk did not work for this client. And I knew all about first making the client feel heard before shifting from problem talk to solution talk. But this was something else: to trust me this client needed from me an honest assessment of his performance and his predicament. No one around him would do so. And from his point of view an honest assessment needed to include the negative, what was not working.
So I learned to work with the "unique ways in which the client chooses to cooperate", as Solution-Focus literature says (Interviewing for Solutions, 3rd ed, p.72). I learned to schedule two to three hour coaching sessions with him. I knew about half of that time would be taken by his need to share with me all that was going on, usually problem talk. He would introduce a topic, say "let me tell you a couple of examples" and then go with it for a whole hour. I learned not to try to shift his attention to the glimmers of hope in his story, knowing he would simply ignore them. When he was done, when he told me all he felt needed to be said, then, and only then, he would be ready to work.
Another thing I learned was to provide him with a comprehensive assessment of the situation, which included positive and negative feedback - then, once the feedback was shared and on the table, I would start focusing on the positive, and this would work most of the time, giving the session a definitely solution-focused feel.
Lesson learned, again and again - the client is the expert. And shifting from problem talk to solution talk can be tricky. I see it all the time now that I am teaching solution-focused brief coaching: trainees are often very eager to transition to solution talk, to the point that when the client is not ready to accept their invitation to do so, they start being directive and lose the solution-focused perspective. It takes time and experience.
Solution-Focused practice is simple, but not easy.