Cultivating Connections: Reframing conversations to be solution focused rather than problem focused.

February 2022

Problem talk creates problems – Solution talk creates solutions

(Steve de Shazer)

A central idea in positive psychology is to focus on what is going well in our current lives and do more of that. Solution focused conversations help people to explore their strengths and resources rather than focus on their problems and deficits. Solution focused approaches developed from the field of family therapy in the 1980S (de Shazer & Berg). Exception finding is a core theme in solution focused conversations. The solution focused approach takes the position that all problems have exceptions. There are times when the problem is less evident or not a problem. Solution focused conversations are rooted in the present and plan for the future. Solution focused questions can support individuals to notice the things in their lives that are going well and notice if part of their goal is already happening. When working with my clients, I use solution focused questions to support young people explore the strengths they have in the present and focus on their future goals. Many young people can feel powerless in the face of problems with school or friendships and solution focused questions can move their attention from being problem focused to solution focused and building on what is already working.

 I have outlined some of the core techniques used in solution focused conversations below and provided some useful reading if you are interested in learning more about this approach. This is a very brief introduction to some of the techniques of this evidence-based strategy that is effective in many settings and across many age groups.

Strength spotting is a simple, accessible and highly effective introduction to becoming solution focused.  Engage in conversation about things not directly connected to the problem or challenge. Actively listen to stories about school, college, sports etc. and intentionally focus on noticing evidence of competencies and strengths. Bring their strengths to their attention and amplify their successes. For example, turning up on time regularly to football training suggests commitment, punctuality and team work. Taking care of pets, looking after younger siblings can be highlighted as evidence of kindness, nurturing and responsibility. Using problem free talk frames, the young person as a capable and resourceful person.

Miracle Question, there are many variations on the Miracle question and all centre on the idea that in getting a person to identify their ideal future, they are expressing the direction for their preferred future. Allow the person to describe in detail their miracle day/miracle future gives them the space the describe their world without problems. This is valuable information for supporting a person when goal setting. An example of the miracle question is “Suppose there was a miracle during the night when you’re asleep, and the problem disappeared overnight, how would you know when you woke up? What would be different in you?

Goal setting, leads naturally from the miracle question and this is where the young person identifies the skill that needs to be learnt, the action to be take etc. in order to resolve the issue. When developing the conversation towards goal setting it is useful to use language that implies a positive outcome such as; How will you do that…? When this happens…?. Focus the conversation on what is wanted rather than what is not wanted.

Scaling is a flexible technique that can be used to help a person identify movement towards their goal.  It is especially helpful when the person is struggling to identify goals or exceptions to their problem. Progress on the scale can be small. Using visuals of ladders, mountains, steps etc. can be very effective and the question is simple- On a scale of 0 to 10, where 0 is the worst you can imagine and 10 is fine Where are you this week?’ So if the person is at a 4, why are not at 3, what strengths are they using to be at 4, what strengths could they use to be at a 5?

Examples of useful solution focused questions

If you could wave a magic wand and the problem disappeared what would life be like?

What would be the first signs that a miracle had happened?

What did you do that made that happen?

What helped you to be able to do that?

How will you know you have achieved xx?

 What will you be doing when you have ???

Useful Resources

This toolkit from NSPCC is very useful and practical and ideally suited for working with young people

This blog from Brief outlines the connection between solution focused approaches and research from the field of positive psychology, in particular the powerful impact of eliciting positive emotions.

Rae Tina, Thomas Miles & Walshe J (2018) The essential guide to using solution focused brief therapy with children and young people

Iveson, Chris, George, Evan & Ratner (2012) Brief Coaching: A solution focused approach

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