When clients focus on their own skills, they often find they hold the answer to their problems too. Our special report looks at how solution-focused coaching empowers the client to realise their preferred futureSolution-focused coaching (SFC) is one of the most popular models used by coaching psychologists and coaches today1. It was founded in the 1980s by a team of family therapists, led by Steve de Shazer and Insoo Kim Berg, at the Brief Therapy Centre in Milwaukee in the US.
Since then, practitioners in a wide range of ﬁelds, such as mentoring and teaching, counselling, mediation, mental health, substance misuse, social work, psychology and business, have adopted and adapted it to their context and client group.
What is SFC?
SFC assumes that clients:
- can construct solutions with minimal analysis of their problems;
- have plenty of resources and competencies, many of which they are unaware;
- have ideas about their preferred futures;
- already use solutions in some form or another.
The SF coach helps clients to achieve their goals by raising their awareness of their skills, strengths and pre-existing solutions. The coach challenges and empowers clients to design and implement solutions that will work for them. It’s an approach that both practitioner and client ﬁnd user-friendly. Both its simplicity and clear, down-to-earth language help to engage and motivate people to make changes in their lives.
In a typical SFC session the coach will do most of the following:
- acknowledge any difﬁculties the client is experiencing;
- restrict theorising conversation about the “causes” of any problem;
- show curiosity about how the person is dealing with situations, stopping things getting worse, sometimes making it better;
- use plenty of “how”, “when” and “what” questions, but very few “why”;
- challenge defeatist, self-destructive talk by the client;
- enquire about “exceptions” – times when the client is already putting solutions into practice;
- give positive feedback about the client’s skills and qualities;
- encourage the client to keep doing what works and if it isn’t working, “to do something different”;
- facilitate the client in ﬁnding small changes that can make a big difference.
The coach’s main intervention is to ask questions to which only the client knows the answers. These are the client’s signature “solution patterns”, ones that have worked well for them in their lives. The coach remains silent as the client tries to retrieve this information, resisting the temptation to put a spin on the client’s experiences. Instead, the coach helps the client to become more aware of how they succeeded when they got it “right”.
The coaching is a time for reﬂection leading to effective action. If solutions are to ﬁt the person, the coach needs to keep out of the way.
The miracle question
How does SFC try to bypass “problem talk”, which so often inhibits solution-focused progress in coaching? Steve de Shazer2 and his colleagues developed “the miracle question” (also known as the “magic question”), which encourages clients to imagine how their day-to-day lives would be if their problems did not dominate them. Its standard form is:
Imagine one night when you are asleep, a miracle happens and the problems we’ve been
discussing disappear. Since you are asleep, you do not know that a miracle has happened. When you wake up, what will be the ﬁrst signs for you that a miracle has happened?
This powerful question accesses imaginative material not usually unearthed by conventional problem-focused questioning3. Depending on how the client responds, the SF coach asks further questions closely linked to the client’s answers. Each answer helps the client to work towards their preferred scenario and has the beneﬁt of clarifying strategies they may need to use. Questions can also be asked about signiﬁcant others in the client’s life, eg, “How will your partner know the miracle has happened?”
The coach will note the client’s strengths, competencies and qualities. In addition, the coach will be listening for any examples of exceptions. These are periods when a small part of the miracle has already occurred. Exceptions demonstrate to the client that their journey towards achieving their goals may already have started.
Scaling is a technique that clients can use between sessions to measure their progress and plan their next steps. A scale of 0-10 is used, where 10 represents “the best it could be” and 0 “the worst”. The scale is adapted to the circumstances. Coaches encourage clients to think about their position on the scale by asking questions such as: “Where were you one or two days ago?” “To get to 7 on the scale, what would need to happen?” “By the end of this month, where do you hope to be on the scale?”
Clients are also asked: “How can you move up one point on the scale?” This can help to build momentum. When the client’s situation is really tough, simply staying in the same place on the scale can be seen positively. Such small steps can lead to big changes.
- Simple and user-friendly
- Supports clients in achieving goals by raising their awareness of their skills, strengths and pre-existing solutions
- Assumes clients are able to construct solutions without in-depth analysis of problems, are resourceful and competent, have ideas about preferred futures, and already use solutions.
- Uses “the miracle question”, encouraging clients to imagine what their lives would be like if their problems did not dominate them
SFC’s place in the coaching toolkit
Some critics see SFC as simplistic; a quick ﬁx producing superﬁcial, short-term change. They argue that a charismatic, inspiring coach can boost a client’s morale for a while, but unless the coach and the client address underlying issues, the client is likely to fall back into the behaviour that has defeated them in the past.
Critics also argue that when, for example, people are highly stressed, they can’t access their resources and skills. They may need to re-learn skills or acquire new ones.
In the hands of unskilled coaches, SFC can become solution-forced4. This happens when coaches minimise the client’s difﬁculties and push too hard, too fast, for change. The client then becomes demotivated and may sabotage the coach’s efforts.
SFC: love it or hate it…
What the fans say:
Boosts clients’ energy levels
- Injects hope and optimism
- Works with what is right for client
- More likely to engage client and gain commitment to change
What the critics say:
A quick ﬁx that fails to bring about long-term change unless underlying issues are addressed
- Doesn’t help people who are unable to access their skills and resources – for example, if they are stressed
- Unskilled SFC coaches push too hard and too quickly for change, demotivating clients
The Probing for Solutions model
- Listen for solutions. In this section the client is talking about his or her problem (or aspirations). The coach’s role is to listen to the story, let the client know that they have been heard, and to look for solutions in the presenting story. The key skill is in not “buying the problem” but in reframing – presenting problems in a way that allows for a range of solutions.
- Probe for solutions. Here the coach is asking questions that raise the client’s awareness of potential solutions, by being curious and not taking the client’s assumptions at face value.
- Talk about solutions. The “talk” here focuses on developing concrete solutions. The aim is to develop a clear vision of a possible future, highlighting unrecognised strengths and resources in the client and using those in the development of speciﬁc solutions.
- Plan for solutions. Planning involves identifying speciﬁc action steps, ensuring that the steps are written down by the client, and that they are time-framed. It is useful to use scaling here and ask the client to rate their conﬁdence of completing these steps on a 1 to 10 scale. This acts as a ﬁnal reality check, allowing the coach to gauge the effectiveness of the session. If the conﬁdence rating is not high (say, 7 or below), the action plans should be revisited.
The Probing for Solutions model, developed by Anthony Grant, is a way of structuring solution-focused coaching conversations. The four sections broadly echo the key principles of coaching and the facilitation of human change: raising awareness, developing accountability, fostering responsibility, eliciting commitment, designing actions and focusing on outcomes. As with all coaching conversation models, the key is informed ﬂexibility – using the model as a framework to move the conversation forward, without being enslaved to it (see case study 1, below).
Case study 1: When less is more
Charlie is a CEO who is coming into the ﬁnal nine months of a ﬁve-year term in which he successfully turned a failing public company into a very proﬁtable business. He has very good people skills and is rightly regarded as a good coach. He is a dynamic, highly intelligent and charismatic leader who has a deep understanding of the details of the business.
Like many leaders he has a strong opinion on most things. He is aware of the inﬂuence that he has on people. He thus holds back on giving his own opinion (eg, by actively seeking other people’s views before he states his own). However, people tend to ﬁsh for his opinion before giving a rather guarded version of their own personal views, and such reticence inhibits open discussion in executive team meetings, obscures the real issues and impedes decision making.
He presents for coaching with the goal of “improving the way [he coaches] the team on an individual one-to-one basis to really say what they believe in team meetings, so that the next CEO will have a even better team to work with”. *
As Charlie began to talk about his situation and his goals, I was “listening for solutions” (eg, for exceptions to the problem – times when the problem does not exist, using the Probing for Solutions model – see above).
After a few minutes I started to “probe for solutions”. I asked Charlie if there were times when members of his team actually said what they really thought to him in a direct and clear fashion. On reﬂection, he named a couple of team members who were forthright, but only when they were talking with him in a private one-to-one meeting. In a team meeting, they tended to hold back.
As the coaching progressed, I continued probing, and asked him what was different about those times. He did not ﬁnd this question easy to answer, and was hesitant in replying. Instead of changing focus in response to his hesitance (as one would in everyday polite conversation), I continued to probe, asking the same question in another way. Using the analogy of viewing two TV screens, I asked him to imagine viewing a typical team meeting on one TV screen, and then compare that with an image of a typical one-to-one meeting viewed on the other screen.
It seemed obvious that in the one-to-one meeting Charlie was alone with the other person, whereas in the team meeting there were many people present, but for some reason Charlie seemed to have difﬁculties in identifying that. I did not want to step in and present my viewpoint, as I felt that it was essential that he make this connection for himself, and of course there may have been other important factors that had not yet surfaced.
To raise his awareness some more, I asked him to mentally walk around the room and view the two meetings from a number of perspectives, not just his own. Charlie realised that the audience was different. I probed further, and he explained that he thought that in the one-to-one meetings he was the audience to whom the ideas were being presented, but in the team meetings the key audience was the other team members – who were primarily playing to each other, not him as he had previously assumed.
Over the course of the coaching, the focus had shifted from individual team members to team dynamics. Indeed, one of the strengths of SFC is that it takes a systemic perspective, rather than focusing on and trying to ﬁx individual “dysfunctionality”.
Shifting to “talking about solutions”, I asked Charlie a variation of the “miracle question”: “What would be different if the team were interacting in a way that encouraged open dialogue and less posturing?” Charlie started to talk about concepts such as trust, respect, and moving away from a mental model of leadership that prized being right all the time, towards one that valued curiosity, ambiguity and collaboration.
Now that we had begun to detail a vision of the preferred future, I highlighted existing strengths and resources, and asked Charlie about times when the team already functioned in a similarly collaborative fashion. He talked about a couple of times when the team had used a facilitator as part of their professional development. He recalled that during these sessions, team members tended to not sit in their usual places. He mentioned that this seemed to have a positive impact on the team dynamics. However, he still found it difﬁcult to identify the key categories of patterns of communication that made a difference.
As we talked further about solutions, I asked Charlie if I could offer some suggestions. I shared with him Losada’s (1999) ﬁndings on the interaction patterns of high, medium and low performing teams. Brieﬂy, Losada found that high performance teams have an approximate ratio of 1:1 for taking a “self” versus “other” perspective, a 1:1 for taking an “inquiry” versus an “advocacy” position, and a 5:1 ratio for “positive” (supportive, encouraging or appreciative) versus “negative” (disapproving, sarcastic or cynical) comments, whereas the ratios for medium and low performing teams were very different (greater levels of “self”, “advocacy” and “negative”).
After we explored these patterns in relation to Charlie’s team interactions, we then moved into the “planning for solutions” stage. I asked him what steps, based on our discussion, he thought might be helpful. He presented action steps on changing the seating arrangements for each meeting, and holding a team development session with a facilitator with the aim of the team themselves developing some explicit guidelines to group interactions. He also realised that for the team to be functional under a new CEO, they needed to drive the development of these communication patterns themselves. Some individual coaching from him would help, but if he was over-controlling he was in effect creating a team that was dependent on him for its functionality.
As we ﬁnished he observed that he had come to the coaching session with the intention of coaching all of his team members individually, but now he realised that he should be letting the team take greater responsibility for its own development, and that (at least in this respect) less really was more. Anthony Grant
* An overview of a 90-minute solution-focused executive coaching session, based on a real case conducted by Anthony Grant, with essential identifying details changed.
On the other hand, research has indicated that integrating SFC with the cognitive behavioural model of coaching can have additional beneﬁts, such as improved mental health and well-being.
Advocates for SFC describe how it brings out the best in their clients. It respectfully taps into “what’s right about the client” and allows him or her to design ways forward that ﬁt their unique repertoire of strategies. SF practitioners report that their clients engage more and commit themselves more to change. This, in turn, brings job satisfaction to the coach. For many practitioners the SF approach is more than a coaching tool, it is a philosophy of life.
However, even the most enthusiastic advocate would admit that the approach does not always work. This could be down to factors associated with either the coach or the client, as well as with the model itself. These may include:
- poor coaching skills;
- the coach trying to prove competence by pushing too hard for solutions
- coach and/or client believing they must understand the problem before proposing solutions;
- clients being temporarily unable to tap into their resources;
- clients who are unable to own their skills and qualities;
- clients who want the coach to solve their problems for them.
Given the positive dynamic of SF, it is hard to see how it can do anyone any damage. Sometimes it works best in difﬁcult situations when some might predict that the clients will not engage with it because they are, for example, negative, unmotivated, undisciplined or unaware. Practitioners who do not recognise depressed clients may ﬁnd that coaching, including SFC, will not help unless the depression is ﬁrst addressed. This may need an appropriate therapeutic referral.
To conclude, SFC’s solution-seeking focus makes it an ideal approach for coaching at work as well as life coaching, as long as practitioners remember the following guidelines:
- Try to put in what’s not there
- Be the sage on the stage
- Offer strategies that worked for you
- Engage in over-analysis of failure
- Give answers
- Use “Why?”
- Feel pressurised to project expertise.
- Draw out what’s in
- Get out of the client’s way
- Use the client’s own strategies
- Look for time when client is at his or her best
- Ask questions
- Use “How?”
- Relax and be yourself.
Case study 2: How did you cope so well?
Jane booked herself in for some career coaching. She worked as an equities trader and loved pitching herself against the market and the intellectual challenge of share trading. She had put herself through a master’s degree in ﬁnance because she wanted to have a solid foundation for her career. She was a very successful broker and the clients loved her. She was the only female on the trading desk.
However, in our ﬁrst coaching session she looked like a beaten person. Head down, shoulders slumped, she appeared to sink into the chair.
Her goal for coaching was to ﬁnd the best way to leave stockbroking and ﬁnd a new career path.
Jane appeared to be quite distressed, so I thought it best to explore the current situation ﬁrst. Moving into solutions too quickly can be alienating for distressed clients.
I asked her what had caused her to want to leave such a successful career. She started to talk about some of the things that were happening at her workplace, and as she talked about the raucous, testosterone-fuelled behaviour, I realised that she could quite easily have a legal case against her employers. The more she talked about the issues, the more she seemed to sink back into the chair.
Feeling somewhat overwhelmed myself and not sure what to do next, I fell back on some solution-focused principles. I asked her how long she had been working there.
“Two years,” she replied.
“That’s amazing,” I said, using the solution-focused principles of compliments and highlighting resources. “You’ve been there for two years. How do you cope so well?”
Her whole demeanour shifted. She sat up in the chair and looked alert.
“What do you mean?” she said.
I replied: “You must be so resilient. How do you do that?”
As the session progressed it emerged that every six weeks or so, she lost her temper with her work colleagues, had a row with her manager and stormed out. Her manager rushed out after her and took her for a coffee to calm her down. She then returned to work and over the next six weeks or so the tension built and the cycle started anew.
As we talked she said that she did not want to leave, but she could not stay there unless things changed. To be frank, I was daunted by the thought of trying to change a male-dominated industry culture.
Once again, I was not sure what to say and reached into my solution-focused toolbox, this time coming up with the principle: “If it works, do more of it!”
Half in jest, I suggested that she have a row every two weeks instead of every six. Of course, not really a row but a fortnightly one-to-one debrief with her manager before things got out of hand.
As the coaching developed over the following months, rather than trying to change the behaviour of the whole workplace by a formal complaints and confrontational approach, we focused on building on her natural resilience and developing communication skills.
Over time, as she reacted less emotionally, the behaviour of her male colleagues became more acceptable. Most importantly, she started to feel less of a victim, recognising that she really did have the ability to cope.
The coaching is a time for reflection leading to effective action. If solutions are to fit the person, the coach needs to keep out of the way
Case study 3: As if by magic
Sally was a middle-level manager taking part in a workplace programme. The 360-degree feedback from her peers and reports indicated that she had good technical skills but was perceived as being standofﬁsh and aloof.
As the coaching session progressed Sally talked about how difﬁcult she found the interpersonal side of her work. This lack of conﬁdence was somewhat at odds with the way she came across in the coaching session, in that, although slightly shy, she was able to talk to me with assurance. Highlighting “exceptions to the problem”, I reﬂected this observation back to her. Although she acknowledged my response, straight away she fell back into talking about the problems she faced at work. She seemed stuck here and unable to move to talking about solutions. When she paused for breath I thought I’d try a variation of the “miracle question”.
I said: “Can you imagine that tonight you go to bed and in the morning when you wake up the problems you have at work have somehow magically disappeared, and the solution is present. What’s the ﬁrst thing you see when you open your eyes that lets you know that things have got better?”
She went very quiet. “As I open my eyes I look at my clothes rack, and all my clothes are not black.”
This was not quite the answer I’d expected, so I used the coach’s fail-safe “tell me some more about that” response.
As she talked it emerged that she felt embarrassed when she had to get up and walk around the large open-plan ofﬁce where she worked. She felt that people were looking at her, and she felt fat and ugly. Consequently, she tended be defensive in her dealings with people. Probing for further solutions, I asked another version of the “miracle question”: “Imagine that you had a rack full of clothes that you really liked. How would you have got them?”
She then started to talk about how she would have found shops that sold great clothes, and how she would have started to feel more comfortable about buying the clothes. As the session came to a close, we developed an action plan that included ways she could be more relaxed when talking with work colleagues, and steps towards getting new clothes. As we worked on these issues over following sessions, she began to wear brighter clothes, and her relationships at work also improved.
Unfortunately, from her employer’s perspective the coaching was not very successful: about four months into the programme she told me, “Thanks for all your help” but she was leaving the organisation. She had a new boyfriend and they had decided to go to travelling!
How to become an SF coach
Many agencies and individuals deliver short SF training courses to practitioners and companies. The leading players are:
The Solutions Focus
Specialises in business-oriented applications of SFC. It offers the SF Professional certiﬁcate programme, an intensive seven-step training presented in three two-day modules. The programme leads to a certiﬁcate and full membership of the international Solutions Focus EDGe practitioners group.
Focus on Solutions
Delivers courses for organisations nationally. Bill O’Connell is director of training. email@example.com
An independent London-based agency that offers a range of courses and seminars. Each year it gathers some of the leading names in SF practice to lead presentations. www.brieftherapy.org.uk
There are currently only a few more substantial courses (part-time) and they are aimed mainly at therapists, although many non-therapists attend them. These include:
- Master’s degree in solution-focused therapy (SFT) offered by the University of Birmingham.
- The diploma in SF practice offered by BRIEF at St Martin’s College in Carlisle has an accredited module in SFT.
- Colleges in Canterbury, Reading, Preston and Guildford also offer shorter courses.
- Brief Solutions in Australia offers a solution-focused approach in business, management and organisations. www.solutions-in-business.com
The United Kingdom Association for Solution Focused Practice is now an active professional group that organises an annual conference, a website, newsletters, a directory of practitioners/trainers/supervisors and a web list. Annual membership is £10. The subject of accrediting practitioners is high on the organisation’s agenda. www.ukasfp.co.uk
SF practitioners report that their clients engage more and commit themselves more to change
- A. Whybrow and S Palmer, “Shifting perspectives: one year into the development of the British Psychological Society Special Group in Coaching Psychology in the UK”, International Coaching Psychology Review, vol 1, no 2, pages 75-85, 2006.
- S de Shazer, Clues: Investigating Solutions in Brief Therapy, New York, WW Norton, 1988.
- B O’Connell, 1998, Solution-focused Therapy (2nd ed), page 50, London, Sage, 2005.
- D Nylund and V Corsiglia, “Becoming solution-focused in brief therapy – remembering something we already know,” Journal of Systemic Therapies, vol 13, pages 5-11, 1994.
- AM Grant, “The impact of life coaching on goal attainment, metacognition and mental health,” Social Behavior and Personality, vol 31, no 3, pages 253-264, 2003.
- LS Green, LG Oades and AM Grant, “Cognitive-behavioural, solution-focused life coaching: enhancing goal striving, well-being and hope”, Journal of Positive Psychology, vol 1, no 3, pages 142-149, 2006.
- IK Berg, Family Preservation – a Brief Therapy Workbook, London, Brief Therapy Press, 1991.
- IK Berg, Family Based Services, New York, WW Norton, 1994.
- AJ Chevalier, On the Client’s Path: A Manual for the Practice of Solution-focused Brief Therapy, Oakland, New Harbinger Publications, 1985.
- S de Shazer, Words Were Originally Magic, New York, WW Norton, 1994.
- Y Dolan, One Small Step, California, Papier-Mache Press, 1998.
- R Fishch, JH Weakland and L Segal, The Tactics of Change – Doing Therapy Brieﬂy, San Francisco, Jossey-Bass, 1982.
- B Furman, “The solution-focused organisation”, a course organised by BRIEF, London, 2005.
- J Greene and AM Grant, Solution-focused Coaching, Harlow, Pearson Education, 2005.
- PZ Jackson and M McKergow, The Solutions Focus, London, Nicholas Brealey Publishing, 2002.
- B O’Connell and S Palmer, The Handbook of Solution-focused Therapy, London, Sage, 2003.
- B O’Connell, Solution-focused Therapy (2nd ed), London, Sage, 2005.
- C Pemberton, Coaching to Solutions, Oxford, Butterworth-Heinemann, 2006.
- G Shennan, “Exercise used at the UK Association for Solution Focused Practice Conference,” Preston, June 2005.
About the authors
Anthony Grant is a coaching psychologist. Widely recognised as a key founder of contemporary coaching psychology, in January 2000 he established the Coaching Psychology Unit at the School of Psychology at the University of Sydney, where he is director. He is the co-author of four books on coaching, including the Evidence-based Coaching Handbook with Dianne Stober (Wiley, 2006) and Solution-focused Coaching with Jane Greene (Pearson, 2003), in addition to a number of research papers on the impact of coaching and the coaching industry. He has a private coaching practice and also consults for a wide range of global organisations
Stephen Palmer is director of the Coaching Psychology Unit at City University and director of the Centre for Coaching, London. He co-edited, with Bill O’Connell, The Handbook of Solution-focused Therapy (2003). His forthcoming book is the Handbook of Coaching Psychology (Routledge), co-edited with Alison Whybrow. He is honorary president of the Association for Coaching and UK co-ordinating editor of the International Coaching Psychology Review.
Bill O’Connell is director of training with Focus on Solutions and a former programme leader for the MA in solution-focused therapy at the University of Birmingham. He is a fellow and accredited counsellor of the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy and the author of Solution-focused Therapy (1998; 2005), Solution-focused Stress Counselling (2001) and co-editor, with Stephen Palmer, of The Handbook of Solution-focused Therapy (2003). He is national development ofﬁcer of the United Kingdom Association for Solution Focused Practice.