January 10, 2013

You don’t know what a mountain is, do you?

Insoo Kim Berg
Around 2000, I was captured by the work of Insoo Kim Berg, Steve de Shazer and their colleagues of the Brief Family Therapy Center. The book Interviewing for Solutions, which Insoo and Peter De Jong wrote, described a very attractive way of working: solution-focused working. What attracted me in this approach was that in it I recognized certain elements which resembled how I, on occasions, already had been working as a consultant. I thought the dialogues in the book were fascinating, especially the dialogues which featured Insoo.

While reading I thought it would be very pleasant to talk to someone who was so friendly and appreciative. The name Insoo somehow seemed to sound Scandinavian to me en I half consciously visualized a rather tall blond woman. When I finally met Insoo in 2003, I smiled. Insoo turned out to be a Korean name and Insoo was neither tall nor blond. But otherwise my predictions about Insoo had been right. My colleague Gwenda Schlundt Bodien and I launched our first own solution-focused training for coaches and consultants in 2002. In a moment of boldness we had written Insoo an e-mail asking if she’d like to perform as one of the trainers in our training. To my surprise and joy she immediately agreed. Insoo joined and blew our participants and us away with her skills and personality.

Another time, in 2004, I had invited her to come and do a master class about solution-focused work for non-therapists in Driebergen (The Netherlands) where I live. Most of the more than 50 attendees were managers and coaches. I had invited her by e-mail and, like before, she just agreed without asking any questions. I thought it would be rather impolite and perhaps not very solution-focused to ask her what she would do in that workshop. Somehow that might be disrespectful. On the day of the workshop I went to pick her up at the airport in Amsterdam. On the drive to Driebergen, which lasted about 40 minutes, I was kind of nervous, wondering whether Insoo had understood my invitation well. Did she understand that the whole workshop revolved around her? Had I made it clear that the participants came only for her and that she would be in front of the group the entire day? What a fool I was! Had I made it clear that these participants weren’t therapists? Had I explained that quite a few participants did not know much about the solution-focused approach? We drove into Driebergen and while she was saying what a lovely village this was, I decided to timidly check: “Insoo, do you have an idea about what you’d like to do with the group, today?” She smiled and said: “Oh, yes, I do.” I left it at that, still nervous. Fifteen minutes before the master class was to start, Insoo was going through some pieces of paper she had brought along. I thought to myself: "Oh my god, only now is she thinking and deciding what to use!” She did it quickly and started the program. The minute she started my nervousness was gone. She was very confident and the group was all attention. The day went marvelous. It was very interactive. She responded to questions from the group and developed impromptu exercises with them.

Afterwards, Insoo joined me to our house and while I sat down with a few guests on one side of the room Insoo went to another side and, to our surprise, she lied down on the floor and started to do yoga exercises. After dinner we talked and Insoo told me some stories and anecdotes. She talked about Steve and how he loved Shostakovich. He and Brain Cade (if I remember well) would sit and play Shostakovich loud and Insoo would go upstairs. She said she liked softer music more, like Mozart. Later, when I drove Insoo back I asked her: “Do you see the solution-focused approach as a finished approach or do you think it will keep on developing and changing?” She started laughing and answered right away in a don’t-be-silly kind of way: “Oh no, it’s not finished. For any model to stay alive it will need to constantly keep developing and renewing itself.” She smiled brightly and continued: “So, we need bright young people who will do that.” I thought that was an impressive answer. Sometimes when people have developed great things they can become kind of defensive when other people suggest improvements to it. Not Insoo. I thought about her answer. “Bright young people who will do that?” Was that an invitation to me? I did not dare ask.

Insoo was every bit as appreciative and friendly as I had imagined. I consider it a privilege to have known her and to have worked with her. That she was authentic in her message appeared from what she did and what she said, also when she was not standing in front of a group. She was dead serious about the solution-focused approach. But that does not mean she was all seriousness. On the contrary. She laughed a lot and had a contagious sense of humor and a nice way of teasing people. In 2005, we co-organized a conference on solution-focused training. In an e-mail exchange about that conference we organized she once wrote: “What are the principles of marketing? I guess I am just too relaxed today after a long walk we took in the mountains. (Ooops! You don’t know what a mountain is, do you?)”.

Although she was friendly and gentle she knew exactly what she wanted and she knew how to get something done from people. She once told me she had said to someone she’d worked with: ‘You’re going on vacation again? You’re so lazy!” It would surely be impossible to be mad when she would say something like that because she would say it with the nicest smile. But perhaps telling this story was intended to warn me that I should not be lazy when working with her? Well, that warning would not be necessary anyway because it was an energizing experience to work with her. I co-wrote several small articles with her. With one of them, I had written a nice – I thought – introduction about people management. Insoo read it, and said: “Oh, this part is a bit overwhelming, to me.” We changed that section by making it simpler and thereby making it better. Afterwards, I wondered whether instead of ‘overwhelming’ she had just meant ‘no good’. But I concluded that even if she had meant ‘no good’ I still would prefer ‘overwhelming’. After that, whenever Insoo said ‘overwhelming’ about something I paid careful attention about what we should change. Usually this would make things better.

On January 11 2007, I brought my youngest son to bed and I enjoyed reading a story to him after a busy workday. While I was reading I heard my cell phone ringing downstairs. Cheerfully I thought to myself: “That person can leave a message”, and I read on. But the damn thing kept ringing. Walking downstairs I thought to myself: ”Who can be calling at this time? It must be something urgent. When I picked up my phone I saw it was Gwenda, my colleague. I answered the phone and all I heard were three words: “Insoo is dead …” I fell silent.



A German version of this text was included in the book Begegnungen mit Steve de Shazer und Insoo Kim Berg.