SF Inspiration #3: Solution is where the magic happens!
Dominik Godat & Elfie Czerny
What do we mean when we use the word solution? Isn’t that clear? No! This ordinary every day term can be used in different ways. And the way we use it in the Solution Focused approach is a special and especially rewarding one. It’s nothing less than the difference between a linear and a magical world. And this difference can make a relevant difference for your application of the Solution Focused approach in your everyday life.
- Elfie is asking for signs of emerging solutions! 94%
- Dominik is talking about emerging solutions! 83.5%
- Bibi is letting solutions emerge! 100%
Solution – Looking forward in a magical world
“The meaning of a word is its use in the language.” Ludwig Wittgenstein
We were puzzled! Sometimes people came back after our Solution Focused (SF) workshops and told us that SF didn’t work. When we asked them what they did, they told us that their conversation partners couldn’t even answer their first question: “Ok, now you told me your problem. So, what’s the solution (to your problem)?”. Our first (mostly unspoken) reaction was “That’s not an SF question! How could they misunderstand the approach like that.” For quite some time, we didn’t know how this misunderstanding could happen, until someone said, “You know, I am Solution Focused now and I only focus on the solution with my conversation partners.” And it suddenly became clear that they were talking about a different meaning of the word “solution” than we were. So, our quest began.
1. What do we mean with the word “solution”?
Following Wittgenstein the meaning of a word is its use in the language. So let’s check how the word “solution” is used in our language. Compare the two following questions:
- What is the solution (to your problem)?
- What was the solution (to your problem)?
What can we discover when we look at these two questions? “Not much.”, you might say, “While number 1 is in the present tense, number 2 is in the past tense.”
If we look closer we discover very relevant differences:
- Looking forward (in a linear world): When answering question number 1 we are either looking for a) a desired future state that is better than it is now or b) a set of actions that when applied “solves” our problem and thus leads to our desired state. While the first idea seems to be in line with SF at first glance, the second idea – “how do we solve this?” – is a quite linear one. It assumes that we can now at this moment know the effects of our actions in the future in detail and predict what the results will be. What an overwhelming idea in a complex dynamic world with interdependencies where we can’t know exactly what effects our first steps will have.
- Looking backwards in a magical world: In question number 2 we look backwards and want to know what happened and/or how we reached a certain state. The answer to question number 2 is c) the story of what (e.g. actions) led to what, quasi how the solution emerged. Solution here is something that emerged in real life in the past and that we can only see when we look backwards. When Machado says that “Paths are made by walking.”, in this view solutions are made by doing. And this happens somehow magical. We don’t know what the effects of our first steps will be, we adapt to change, we influence others who influence us, we do something or don’t do it, and somehow the solution emerges. When we look back, we can tell people our story of how it happened. When we look forward however we can’t yet see how this will exactly happen, especially not in our dynamic complex world.
- Looking forward in a magical world: If we can’t tell how the future will unfold and still want to look forward in this view, we might ask “What solution might be evolving/emerging in the future?”. Solution is then d) something that might emerge in the future in a somehow magical process.
So out of these two questions we can derive at least four meanings of the word solution:
- a.) Solution as a desired state in the future.
- b.) Solution as a set of actions that when applied leads to our desired state.
- c.) Solution as our story of what emerged in the past and led to our desired state.
- d.) Solution as what might be emerging in the future in a somehow magical process.
In our example that puzzled us at the beginning, we realized that when they used the word solution they either meant a) or b), while we usually mean d).
“Paths are made by walking.” Antonio Machado
2. So, what does the word solution mean in the term Solution Focused approach?
If the word solution can be used in different ways in ordinary language, do SF practitioners at least use it coherent? Is there one meaning of the word solution in the term Solution Focused approach? This question was especially intriguing for us, since we were quite often engaged in discussions whether the term “Solution Focus” is well chosen or not. Most SF practitioners that we have met find the term somehow odd, while we like it very much. So, also amongst practitioners there might be different understandings. Therefore, let’s check how the word solution is used in the Solution Focused approach.
If we look at texts of Steve de Shazer and Insoo Kim Berg we can find all four and even more different meanings. Let’s look for example at the groundbreaking article de Shazer et al. (1986) “Brief Therapy: Focused Solution Development”. There the word solution is used 55 times and in many different ways. And it’s mostly not clear what they really meant with it. Here are some examples:
a.) Solution as a desired state in the future:
- “The more alternate futures or alternate solutions are talked about, the stronger the client’s expectations of change will be.”
- “The task of Brief Therapy is to help clients do something different, by changing their interactive behavior and/or their interpretation of behavior and situations so that a solution (a resolution of their complaint) can be achieved.“
b.) Solution as a set of actions that lead to our desired state:
Solutions are the behavioral and/or perceptual changes that the therapist and client construct to alter the difficulty, the ineffective way of overcoming the difficulty, and/or are the construction of an acceptable, alternative perspective that enables the client to experience the complaint situation differently.”
c.) Solution as what emerged in the past and led to a desired state.
- “Attempts to build an intervention (…) might not as readily have led toward the eventual solution, which the family itself invented between the first and second sessions.“
d.) Solution as what might be emerging in the future in a somehow magical process:
- “the solution (that is, change in interaction) needs to “fit” within the constraints of that situation in such a way as to allow a solution to develop.“
If the word solution was not used in a coherent way back then, did it become more clear in later years? If you study the articles and books of Steve de Shazer and Insoo Kim Berg, you will notice that it didn’t.
The study of texts will not help us to clarify what could be meant with solution in the term Solution Focused approach, looking at practice however could. So, let’s look deductively at the relationship between the above meanings and Solution Focused practice: How do the above four meanings fit to SF practice? If we do that, it becomes obvious that with solution in the term Solution Focus only d) “Solution as what might emerge in the future in a somehow magical process.” can really be meant.
- a.) “Solution as a desired state in the future” cannot be meant with Solution Focus. On the one hand because most practitioners have other words for that desired state, e.g. preferred future. That would not be necessary, if solution was the word for this desired state. And on the other hand because most SF practitioners focus on more than this desired state, e.g. signs of progress and what worked in the past. If solution was the word for the desired state, then the term Solution Focus would only cover a part of what SF practitioners are doing.
- b.) “Solution as a set of actions that lead to our desired state” can also not be meant. Otherwise the focus on small next steps or signs of progress would not make sense. The practitioner would need to engage in how exactly these actions lead to the preferred future. Most SF pracitioners would reject this linear idea.
- c.) “Solution as what emerged in the past and led to our desired state.” could only be meant after the client reached the desired future and not before or during the session, so that can also not be meant with the term Solution Focus.
Only d makes sense: If “Solution is what might be emerging in the future in a somehow magical process.” then the term Solution Focus means that we focus on aspects that foster the emergence of useful change in the future, like
- a detailed picture of the (interactions in the) preferred future. As soon as I see how I could behave and how others might react in my desired future in detail, I can start to behave like that and/or might notice instances of this happening much better and thus can react to those instances in a fruitful way in the future, so that useful change can emerge.
- signs of progress. When I see how it might look like when the solution starts emerging, I might notice those changes, be able to amplify them, and foster useful change in the future much easier.
- what worked in the past. When I see what worked in the past, I can try out if this fits this new situation. On the one hand, I know that I was already able to do this and might be able to do it again. And on the other hand, if it worked in the past it might be encouraging to do more of it.
All these aspects foster the emergence of useful change, and thus the emergence of a solution, in the future. We cannot say what will exactly happen in our dynamic and complex world. The research however shows that Solution Focused conversations foster the emergence of useful change very much. Therefore, let’s look forward in a magical world – Solution (Focus) is where the magic happens!
Three questions to foster a detailed picture of the preferred future:
- What are your best hopes from coming here?
- Who could notice that you reached you best hopes? How could they notice? How might they react? And how might you react in response?
- What other differences could reaching your best hopes make?
Three questions to explore signs of progress:
- Suppose your best hopes are fulfilled tomorrow: How would you start noticing?
- What could be first small signs that show you that your are on your way to your best hopes?
- Who else could notice those small signs? And how? How would the person react? How would you react in reponse?
Three questions to find out what works and do more of it:
- What has worked in similar situations before? Make a list of 25 things you did back then.
- What were signs that showed you in your recent past that you are on your way to reach your best hopes?
- Suppose that you moved one step closer to your best hopes: What would you notice yourself doing of the things that you are already doing now?