January 11, 2012

Micro-analysis: showing the details of how the solution-focused approach makes change happen

Guest post by Paolo Terni, solution-focused coach in Sacramento, San Francisco Bay Area, CA, USA

One of the key principles of Solution-Focus practice is that “The Action is in the Inter-Action”, as Mark McKergow and Paul Z Jackson brilliantly put it. Which means that we “co-construct” meaning and solutions in the interaction. But how? This is where microanalysis comes in. Pioneered and extensively used by Janet Beavin Bavelas and her research group at the University of Victoria, microanalysis is defined as “the detailed and reliable examination of observable communication sequences as they proceed, moment by moment, in the dialogue”.
  • Reliable - It is a process that is as empirical as it gets: conversations are videotaped (making sure all people participating in it are captured by the video camera at all times); each segment is analyzed in detail; it is then coded in a descriptive way. 
  • Detailed - they mean it; I had the privilege of attending a workshop led by Janet B. Bavelas and her team to learn how to do microanalysis on previously recorded sessions. It is hard, painstaking work. It takes hours to break down a few seconds of conversation. It is mind-boggling the amount of interactions that go on even in the simplest snippet of a conversation. 

There is no underlying theory in micro-analysis: rather, the approach is to see what is actually going on when a therapist and a client interact, at the observable level. Among the most impressive findings so far:
  • The isolation of “grounding sequences” and a better understanding of how they create common meaning in a dialogue. Grounding is the moment by moment process through which participants in a dialogue establish mutual understanding ("common ground"). Usually there are 3 steps in grounding: 1) the speaker presents information (it could be as little as a brief glance / eye contact), e.g. "Hi, my name is John", 2) the addressee displays either understanding or not, e.g. "Nice to meet you, John. My name is Mary.", 3) the speakers acknowledges ('nice to meet you, Mary"). It is interesting to see how these 3-step grounding sequences literally put understanding in place during a dialogue.
  • In a study where 3 SFBT (Solution-Focused Brief Therapy) sessions and 3 CBT (Cognitive Behavioral Therapy) sessions were micro-analyzed : a) SFBT therapists are found to be “more positive” (i.e. include more questions or statements that focus the client on some positive aspect of his / her life) than CBT therapists (197 vs. 93 items), b) CBT therapists are found to be “more negative” (i.e. include more questions or statements that focus the client on some negative aspect of his / her life) than SFBT therapists (140 vs. 37 items), c) SFBT experts were homogenous, CBT experts were heterogeneous (i.e. while the ratio of positive vs. negative content was similar in the 3 SFBT sessions studied, it showed wide variations in the 3 CBT sessions studied) 
  • In a study where 2 SFBT sessions, 2 CBT sessions and one MI (Motivational Interviewing) sessions were micro-analyzed : a) SFBT experts preserved more clients words in their formulations (46%) than CBT & MI practitioners (23%) b) SFBT experts added less words in their conversations with clients (10%) than did CBT & MI practitioners (35%).
As Bavelas pointed out during her workshop: “it is not true that SFBT has no theory, SFBT has a very sophisticated theory, but it is about interaction and language.” In other words, while SFBT makes no assumptions about the mechanisms or the theoretical entities by which change happens, it has a very clear and consistent set of rules on how to use interaction and language to make change happen. And this can be shown, thanks to microanalysis.

I think the most useful thing I got from my microanalysis training is a newly found appreciation of the little subtleties in human interactions that can make a difference in a conversation. And as a trainer of Solution-Focused Coaches , I found the learning acquired in the microanalysis workshop priceless: it makes you notice little details in coaching conversations, which I then use to deliver positive feedback to trainees.

You can find an interview of Janet Beavin Bavelas, Ph. D. here on my website.


Paolo Terni is an experienced solution-focused coach and trainer, based in Sacramento, San Francisco Bay Area. You can hire him as coach or workshop facilitator or join one of his solution-focused training programmes.

1 comment:

  1. This close examination of face to face interaction reminds me a little of the productive work John Gottman did with couples. It turned out in that case It is really hard to use this kind of analysis in real time for practical purposes but it results in very helpful insights about the process.


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