Solutions Focus Approach

by Paul Z Jackson

In a nutshell

1. The Solutions Focus approach

The basic idea of SF is to find what works and do more of it. It’s also important to stop doing what doesn’t work, so you can do something else instead. It assumes that people are capable of knowing what they want and finding the skills and resources between them to make progress towards that. The approach can be summarised in six SIMPLE principles:

Solutions – not problems

Inbetween – not individual

Make use of what’s there – not what isn’t

Possibilities – from the past, present and future

Language – clear not complicated

Every case is different


2. Origins

Solutions Focus has its roots in the therapeutic approach devised by husband-and-wife team, Steve de Shazer and Insoo Kim Berg, in Milwaukee, Wisconsin (USA). Working with therapy patients from the late 1970s to early in the 21st century, they were seeking the most efficient ways of making progress.

  • They found that patients made better progress when they were asked about what they wanted (solutions) before (or – more radically – instead of) when they were asked about their problems.
  • Their insights are now backed by a far wider and larger range of research from the fast-developing field of positive psychology, which is the scientific study of happiness, strengths and why and how people flourish.


3. Problem talk versus solutions talk

If you want to have consistently constructive conversations, perhaps the most important distinction to grasp is that between problem talk and solutions talk. It is also the most subtle.

  • Problem talk is – as the name implies – talk about problems: it includes descriptions of what the problems are, analysis of where they came from, elaboration of the effects they are having, how people feel about them, and speculation about what they are leading to. It is any talk that puts the focus on the problem.
  • Solutions talk is talk about what is wanted: it includes descriptions of how matters will be when they are the way people want them to be; it also includes talk of resources, strengths and skills, of successful examples and of actions that will help us to get to desired states of affairs.


4. Key principles

The main principles of a solutions-focused approach can help you deal more confidently and effectively with even the toughest of situations in which change is wanted.

  • The first principle is to focus on solutions, not problems. You can focus on solutions as part of your planning for meetings by asking yourself in advance what it is you want from the meeting and by preparing questions and statements that will inject these terms into the discussion.
  • The next principle is Inbetween: it’s not just about the other person (or people) or about you, but the interaction between the two (or more) of you.
  • Make use of what’s there, which means taking advantage of how matters actually are.
  • Use possibilities – from the past, present and future. For possibilities from the past, for example, you might recall previously successful meetings, perhaps with the same people, perhaps on the same sort of topic with someone else.
  • Language – clear not complicated. Your conversations will be more constructive if you and other people involved understand what is going on.
  • Remembering that every case is different reminds you to remain alert to what is uniquely to your advantage in this situation and saves you from applying tactics that may have worked before and then being surprised that they don’t work this time.


5. Strategic thinking

A diagrammatic model illustrates the difference between the problem axis, which starts with the problem and leads to the dreaded future, and the solutions axis, which starts with resources and leads to the future perfect, the desired future.

  • Along the problem axis, you concentrate on complaints, analysis of what’s wrong, searching for causes of problems, barriers and talk of deficits and resistance.
  • Along the solutions axis, you concentrate on what’s wanted, resources, what’s working, successes, skills, qualities and small actions you can take.


6. The main tools

There are six practical tools which you can use, either independently or in combination, to guide you through any change setting to make it more constructive and improve your prospects of getting what you want.

  • The platform: you have the most useful platform when you can state what you want.
  • The future perfect describes your goal in detail.
  • With scaling, you can create a range from 1 to 10, where 10 is the best it can be for you – your future perfect – and 1 is the opposite.
  • Counters – as the term implies – are anything that counts towards getting you to where you want to go.
  • Another useful conversational tool is the affirm – offering an affirm or a compliment.
  • Small actions are the kind of steps that can be taken soon after the conversation finishes.


7. Building a platform

The platform is the starting point for a constructive project, meeting or conversation, where we shift from talking about the problem (or what is not wanted) to identifying what people do want (the solution), gaining agreement to work on the topic and explore the benefits of doing so. You will save a great deal of time by building a platform at the beginning of a project, conversation or meeting. Platform building includes

  • Establishing a starting point
  • Checking that the project is one worth embarking upon
  • Ensuring that the people involved are prepared to do something.


8. The future perfect

The future perfect is a rich and detailed description of what is wanted or of life without the problem. By establishing a future perfect, you

  • Provide direction for your project
  • Motivate and influence people – if the future is compelling, then they are more likely to be motivated to take action towards it
  • Get a detailed description of what people are looking for, therefore making it easier to identify it when it happens – perhaps even enabling you to notice parts of the future perfect that are happening already.


9. Scaling

You can use scaling to measure where you are now, to set goals and to measure progress. When scaling, you can engage individuals in reflection on their own strengths and coping strategies. Scaling can provide a means of identifying personal goals and can indicate steps towards achieving those goals. The benefits of scaling include

  • Helping individuals and the team to focus on how they would like things to be
  • Elaborating strengths – when you ask why people have placed themselves at a certain point
  • Measuring change in ways that encourage further change
  • Confirming progress
  • Deciding priorities and next steps.


10. Using counters

A counter is whatever we can discover that is helping us get towards our desired state of affairs. We elicit counters by turning our attention to the following categories, aiming to identify them, make them open and explicit and, of course, put them to work:

  • When the solution (what’s wanted) happens already
  • When parts of the solution happen already
  • Something resembling what is wanted happens already
  • Resources, skills and qualities that may be useful
  • Grounds for optimism that matters may be about to improve
  • Evidence for being up to a certain point on a scale
  • Others’ knowledge, skills and experience.


11. Using compliments and affirms

People perform better when they are appreciated. The role of the affirm is to articulate the positive quality, putting it on the table, so to speak, so that it is plainly visible, enabling the recipient to pick it up, appreciate it and use it to make progress with the task at hand. The solution-focused affirm is when we express these positive attributes or qualities – usually in a short, pithy compliment.

  • It seems to me from our conversation that you really care about the welfare of that customer.
  • I’m guessing you have the dedication to get your reports completed and handed in on time.


12. Using small steps

Successful change frequently hinges on small actions that people take. The action gets us unstuck and helps us to move effectively in a world that changes in complex, unstoppable ways. Small actions have several advantages over big actions:

  • They are easier to propose
  • They are easier to take
  • They require less confidence and less energy
  • They are more likely to be taken
  • There’s less chance of severely disturbing other people who may be involved
  • If they work, we can do more of them; if not, we can try something else.


13. Performance conversations

Solutions-focused rating will allow you to ‘put positive differences to work’. By using this rating system, you can have collaborative, constructive and motivational discussions about performance with your direct reports, your manager, colleagues and customers.

  • Variations in performance over the period under discussion can be examined to identify resources, next steps and clues for how to maintain good performance and how to improve over time.
  • When examining the ‘positive difference’, we are highlighting the times when things went well, when people performed at their best.


14. Solutions focus in just a minute

Making progress doesn’t always require in-depth, long or scheduled meetings. The idea of the JAM session is to create short and concise lists of questions related to a specific topic that you can use yourself and with your colleagues. JAM sessions should

  • Fit with a specific situation, such as meetings, presentations or making decisions
  • Use some or all of the solutions-focused tools
  • Take no longer than five minutes to work through
  • Consist of four to eight questions
  • Be self-contained and self-instructing.