June 29, 2011

When Solution-Focus Does Not Work …

Guest post by Paolo Terni, PCC, briefcoachingsolutions@gmail.com

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.



  1. Thank you for sharing this as I've experienced a similar situation with one client who just wanted to talk about his concern and what he needed was just someone to listen.

    As a SF coach, I wanted to use as many as SF questions but then I realized that it did not work based on the SF assumption (if it doesn't work try sth different & minimal interventions)...when I gave up asking SF questions and just carefully listened and letting him know that I listened, I realized that the conversation went ok...then we were ready to SF talk

  2. I'm sorry if this is a dumb question, but what's your definition of 'brief' in 'solution-focused brief coaching? A series of 2-hour sessions doesn't sound brief to me, but I may have got hold of the wrong end of the stick.

  3. @9coach9 thank you - glad to see my experience resonates with yours!

  4. @careersintheory where did I characterize the coaching sessions with that client as brief??

    SF Brief Coaching sessions to me are 30', and this is what I teach. And what I wrote is that when I teach that, I see that shifting from problem talk to solution talk is tricky.

  5. Great Post Paolo, thank you!

    I recognize it very well. Work with the "unique ways in which the client chooses to cooperate", great quote! I also had the experience of having to work at a very slow pace with clients, giving them enough supportive attention and presence to "heal", in order to get out of the negative 'trance' and gradually allowing very small doses of SF talk.

  6. Thank you for sharing your experience, Liselotte!
    I am always impressed by your work!!

  7. Paolo

    Thanks for responding. Sorry, I did say it was probably a dumb question. It's just that you referred to training people in solution-focused brief coaching in your penultimate paragraph so I bust wanted to clear it up.

    Just for the record, I completely agree with the need to spend time listening to and understanding the client's default way of thinking before possibly attempting to encourage them to shift to a more constructive mindset.

    How do you manage to do that within the 30 min framework?

    (must remember to add my name here if I don't want to be called careersintheory!)

  8. I had a client - a law firm - who were determined to talk about 'the problem' at a planning session. So, I asked them list on flip charts all the many things that would damage and eventually destroy the firm. Remember, lawyers are trained to disprove things. They dutifully did their lists, and with some gusto. Once they had presented their tale of woe, I asked them if they were done and felt better. They said, yes. We carried on with the planning. I think I asked them, 'suppose none of that happened, what would happen instead?'
    Recently, a CFO I was coaching persisted in complaining about her lot at the office. It was our third session. After the usual efforts to move her away from the complaints I asked her if she needed time to tell me more about the problem. At the end of the hour - we met at a hotel near her office - we had a non-complaining chat over a drink (Friday at 5 pm!). She told me the coaching was helpful. About a week later I asked her if she need to set another date, she respond, 'No thank you, I'm feeling much better'.
    I think some clients find the solution they need, even if they stay in the complaining mode.

  9. Hi Paolo,

    Thank you for this helpful post. Yesterday I had a conversation with a prospect about coaching a team. It was a great conversation in the way that this person shared a whole story and showed great care for his team and their work. At the same time I was trying to figure out what we were going to work on, so I tried asking SF questions, which were all the time met with "Yes but ...".

    At one point I noticed I started to focus on the "Yes buts" instead of on the conversation.

    The moment this became clear the following happened: I gave back what the client told me, sharing my understanding of the difficulty of his situation, also pointing out what had struck me in his story and then ended my reply with "but..."

    And all of a sudden it was like we had finally found the right handshake. In fact, the "yes but"-s were almost gone from the rest of the conversation.

    I'm going to use your question "How has this been helpful?" next time I meet the prospect to ask him about our conversation on the phone. Thank you for your inspiration.

  10. @David, @Paolo,

    You asked how you can manage in a 30 minute framework. Could you tell us what you / your client would hope for as outcome of this 30 minutes?

    Your question about the 30 minute framework reminds me of what I call the-coaching-ippon. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ippon

    It's tricky to think that reverting to SF will make it possible for us as a coach to insure victory of solutions over problems by one clever or bold move. This move can be a great question but also the idea that 'if we can only make the client have a problemfree conversation'. For the record - I do tend to find myself looking for these ippon-moves from time to time.

    Yet we are trained to go along with our clients first, walk next to them. We have no business standing put and flipping them around with one bold move. Instead, on their walk, our questions (even in those 30 minutes) can help them to look up once and a while and maybe - maybe get them first to
    a) enjoy our time walking together
    b) maybe appreciate some parts of the journey they have already made before we met
    b) continue some of that appreciation during a part of the journey which follows
    c) perhaps inspire them to take a different route (or continue their route in a more appreciative way)
    d) (inspire them to see what) bring(s) them closer to where they want to go
    e) inspire them to see opportunities along the way that may contribute to what they want to achieve

    Ok, that's still a metaphor, I know.

    Practical experience I've had with a two-minute frame was to just ask the client: "We only have two minutes left and I really want to make them count for you. Looking at the conversation we've had, what do we still have to talk about in these two minutes? What do I definitely have to ask you before we leave?" Maybe I was lucky to have a wonderful client (they tend to be most of the time :)), but this question made it easier for her to point out in a very clearcut fashion what our conversation was all about.

    Was this an ippon-moment? Maybe. I tend to think not. I tend to believe the whole 28 minutes before those two were maybe even more important since during these 28 minutes her question and her concerns and her view on things were fully allowed to 'be here'. Actually, in those 28 minutes, most of what I did was just giving back what she told me, asking questions to understand her properly, inviting her to refine what she had in mind.

    In this particular situation, this approach worked. Will it work again? You tell me.

  11. @David: no worries, thank you for giving me the opportunity to clarify!

    The 30' format comes from the training & practice I had with Peter Szabo - that is what he uses. And since now I am teaching his program, that is the format I use too.

    Once I started practicing with that, I found that paradoxically the tighter the time-frame, the more useful you are to clients.
    How do I manage to do that? I would say... trust the process. Somehow, it works :)

    I agree with Hannes 100%.
    Sometimes you seem to go nowhere for 28' minutes and then at the very end the client gets to something that they think it is very useful to them...

    Like Liselotte, who left a comment before, said: "Solution Focus is not about finding THE solution for a problem, it's about a useful interaction that leaves the client changed: with more hope, with more creative ideas, with a feeling of competence, with a clearer view on possibilities".

    Thanks for the conversation,

  12. @Hannes: thanks for sharing the experience re dealing with "Yes but..." it is a tricky situation!! So simple, yet I often forget: just go past the "yes, but..." and accept what the client is saying!

    And i loved your metaphor:

    "a) enjoy our time walking together
    b) maybe appreciate some parts of the journey they have already made before we met
    b) continue some of that appreciation during a part of the journey which follows
    c) perhaps inspire them to take a different route (or continue their route in a more appreciative way)
    d) (inspire them to see what) bring(s) them closer to where they want to go
    e) inspire them to see opportunities along the way that may contribute to what they want to achieve"

    Wonderful way of putting it!!

  13. Hey there. I was wondering about the option of having you consult for this company I work for. Do you do mainly financial consulting? and do you have alike a pricelist for your service?

  14. Hello @ sap software training

    I mainly do executive coaching and skill development within the framework of Organizational Development projects.

    You can find more about what I do on my website:

    Regarding prices: yes, I have a fee structure, depending on what kind of consulting you are thinking about. I would more than happy to share that with you via email - briefcoachingsolutions@gmail.com


  15. I really like your points here. Like you, "solution-focus" first means "what works for the client.

    I facilitate large scale positive change.
    Yet, plenty of times we have to pause to leave room for the emotional need of venting, before moving to a solution. Sometimes we ignore it and keep focusing positively and it works too. Over the years I've learned when to push a redirect, and when to honor it. Usually, I gently redirect, and if they ignore it I let them go for a while. Then repeat.

    This is a sophisticated topic, and I like the way you handle it, and the many intriguing responses.

  16. Hi Paolo,

    Just found your article and provocative title and thought I'd check it out. It's interesting you're not actually talking about SF not working, but when we might not work it right (by ignoring what works for the client).

    In my training as a psychotherapist, we learned the saying, in reference to following theories, that if all you have is a hammer, the whole world looks like a nail. What we often forget in using the SF approach, whether coaching or counseling, is that people can present differently during or at each new session: visitor, complainant, or customer. Each state of mind is addressed differently by SF (matching what works for the client).

    What I like about your article is that you actually turned the SF approach on yourself. You were focused on the problem (the client not engaging with you in solution talk soon enough), and when you focused on finding solutions, you were able to be effective.

    Lastly, in psychotherapy at least, brief refers also to the number of sessions, not just the amount of time for one session, and it is relative to other forms of therapy or coaching. A 3-hour session can be considered brief if it's a one-time thing.


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