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What are SF questions for

Information…or “useful detail”?

Teaching a course recently in Cardiff, I got into a discussion with Ania Dobek, a psychologist, about whether the word “information” is useful to describe what the solution focused practitioner is after.
While talking to her I realised that I often hear people saying that they are trying to get information from the client: information about what they want in future, information about what they have achieved, and so forth. It has occurred to me that this term is more applicable to different sorts of work than solution focused practice. For example, if I am doing an assessment, then I definitely want to get information – “facts” about the client’s current emotional state, their history, etc. This is information that I can use for my purposes – to present the assessment wherever it is needed, for example, in diagnosis, or for court.
The Penguin dictionary defines information as “act of telling or imparting knowledge; knowledge acquired from another; facts etc. communicated or learnt”.
In solution focused work, my aim when I talk with clients is to invite them to think, and to think differently, because, as Steve de Shazer and Insoo Kim Berg say (quoting Einstein) in a wonderful paper Making Numbers Talk (1993) “it seems quite clear that one cannot solve the problem with the same kind of thinking that has created the problem”. This means to me that we could try to derive some information as to what may have led to the problem happening, but that won’t necessarily have anything to do with solving it.
There is one word that comes at the end of the Penguin definition above which I left off, and that is “news”. For me, that is a wonderful word, connecting with a phrase I learned in my family therapy training years ago, a phrase of the anthropologist Gregory Bateson: “news of a difference”.
The client’s answers to questions about their preferred future and about the instances of success in their lives are merely ideas that the interviewer uses to encourage the client to develop this “news of a difference” some more. If, say, a client says that they have reached 3 on the scale towards achieving their preferred future (which we can call “10”) then their answers as to what they are doing and have done to reach 3 are reflected back to them to encourage them to develop that thinking: “how did you get to 3?” what were you pleased to have noticed yourself doing?” “what have you done that’s been different in the last week?” “what would your daughter say you’ve done that’s been different?”
If I regarded the answers to these questions as “information” then I would be thinking of them as assessment facts that would prompt me to construct some sort of task for the client to do. Whereas I want them to work out for themselves possible ways forward. And as de Shazer worked hard in his later years to remind us, language is a slippery phenomenon. Misunderstanding is more likely than understanding in human discourse – he adds, in the aforementioned paper, that “misunderstandings make conversation possible…if we simply (radically) understood each other, we would have nothing to talk about”. So the useful details that emerge in the conversation are there for the client to reflect on, but they aren’t truth in any factual sense, they are simply what emerged between the two of us at that time.
Linked with this is a doubt I have about questions that clients are sometimes asked at the end of sessions about “how useful/helpful was this meeting?” I don’t see how a client can possibly know at that moment. Our colleague in Sweden, Harry Korman, is fond of quoting research that says that practitioners are no better at predicting outcome in their work than chance. I’m tempted to say that clients are probably no good at it either. The work we do is a sort of provocation to clients, inviting them into different ways of thinking, developing useful detail that is seeded in their minds and hopefully flowering when they get back into their real lives. If what you expect to happens influences what you do, then I hope that by answering questions about what you hope will happen in your life will encourage you in that direction.
Even though I might regard clients as being unreliable in guessing how useful a meeting has been, that doesn’t stop me from asking questions like “on a 0-10 scale, how confident are you of achieving what you’ve said you want to achieve?” Of course this is close to asking them to predict the chances. However, I don’t regard their answer as a solid, scientific fact. Their answer is something I just use, as with everything else, to feed back into the conversation. So if their confidence is low, I can ask them how come it’s at least as high as it is, and how they will cope if things don’t work out.
Of course, the answers clients give to certain questions might be treated by me as a “fact” in certain circumstances. If I ask a client I have concerns about to rate how safe she feels herself to be, then of course a low rating might lead me to take certain actions to ensure I have carried out my duty of care – and even if she gives a high rating I could decide to override that if I have other cause for concern. But here I have clearly moved into assessment mode.
Harvey Ratner
14 December 2023
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