Solutions Focus Approach

by Paul Z Jackson


The scale is a near-universal tool for measurement, used by doctors to ask patients to measure pain, teachers to rate achievement and on feedback questionnaires to show degrees of satisfaction. It’s often used in such a way that 10/10 is the desired result and anything below that is not good enough. While perhaps lacking finesse as a motivational method, this introduces many to the basic idea. If you are doing particularly well, you might describe yourself as, ‘Off the scale!’

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.

Using scaling

Here’s an example of scaling at work:

Suppose... You have at your disposal a time machine – you know, one of those boxes that travels in time. Suppose you get into this time machine and it takes you to a time and place where this problem has been solved.

As you open the door to the time machine and step out, what are the first signs you notice that it’s taken you to this new time and place?


Jane is a supervisor for the wines and spirits department of a large supermarket and is struggling to get all her tasks done. She is feeling overwhelmed, so she goes to her manager for help.

Jane: I’m really struggling – I need to find a way to be more organised and manage my time better.
Manager: OK, so on a scale of 1-10, where 10 means you are as organised as you want to be and are managing your time very well and 1 is that you are totally disorganised all the time, where would you say you are on the scale?
Jane: I’d say I’m at a 3.
Manager: A 3 – so tell me what makes it a 3 rather than a 1?
Jane: Well I’m not totally disorganised; I got my children to school on time, the staff rotas are done and I’m pretty sure we put all the right pricing on the products this morning.
Manager: That’s encouraging; tell me what else makes it a 3?
Jane: I guess I can get organised; when I’ve got time I write detailed lists and am pretty good at sticking to them.


By asking Jane a scaling question and then asking her how she had got that high, the manager and Jane start to find what’s working. A function of scaling is to develop confidence in what has already been accomplished. This in turn leads to hope of accomplishing more in the future.

Notice how it is Jane – the person with the issue – who chooses the number on the scale. If it is Jane who identifies she’s at 3, she now owns this and cannot resist working with this number. If her manager had given Jane the number, she might have disagreed, leading to a discussion or debate about the number rather than one about progress and moving forward.

The conversation now continues, with the manager steering Jane towards possibilities of progress.

Manager: So, you have some experience of being organised and awareness of how to go about achieving this. I’ve also noticed how accurate you are when you do the rotas – this is very impressive, given how busy you are.
Jane: Thank you – I’ve just been so overwhelmed recently, I forgot how to get organised.
Manager: You placed yourself at a 3 on the scale. Tell me, what would be the first thing you would notice if you were at 4 on the scale?
Jane: If I were at a 4, my desk would be tidy – I would have an orderly in-box and a clear space to work in.
Manager: So given this, what’s a small action you can take in the next days or weeks that will move you up the scale?
Jane: That’s easy. I’m going to spend the last half hour of today sorting through my paperwork and clearing my desk.


Notice how Jane’s manager complimented her and asked her about how to get to 4, rather than straight to 10 – prompting small actions rather than large heroic ones. Had the manager asked Jane straight away how she could get to 4 or perhaps 10, it’s unlikely she would be able to answer this – if she knew what to do, she would probably be doing it already.

The scenario above illuminates a difference between how scales are used in a problem-focused and a solutions-focused way. Taking a solutions focus includes using the scale to explore progress made (1 to n) rather than focusing on a gap, such as the entire distance still to be covered (n to10).

Had the manager asked Jane how come she was only at a 3 or why she wasn’t at a 10, they would have had a different conversation – most likely centred around problems and deficits, blame and justification.

The diagram below shows the contrast between using scales in a problem-focused and a solutions-focused way:

Other uses

We can also use scaling to explore differences or ‘shades of grey’, as solutions-focused trainer and author, Peter Szabo, describes them. Jane might be at 3 today, yet it’s entirely possible that she may have been higher on other days or perhaps in other situations.

We can use the scale to ask about the best it has been. The manager could ask Jane what’s the highest she’s ever been on the scale of being organised and then explore that occasion – what she was doing and what colleagues might have been noticing about her at this time.

The manager also has the opportunity to explore 10 – another way to establish a future perfect.

In this example, the focus has been on performance. The same tool can measure much else. You can scale for:

  • Performance: on a scale of 1-10, where 10 is the desired performance and 1 is the opposite, where are you on the scale currently?
  • Confidence of progress: on a scale of 1-10, where 10 is you are absolutely confident you will make progress and 1 is that you have no confidence in any progress being made, where are you on this scale?
  • Commitment to action: on a scale of 1-10, where 10 is you are as committed as possible to taking this action and 1 is you have no commitment to take this action at all, where are you now?

Scaling guidelines

Below are some guidelines for getting the best out of scaling.

  • Invite the person with the issue/the client to say where they are on the scale, rather than telling them where you think they are.
  • Accept the number they choose for themselves on the scale. The number in itself is not immediately significant: what matters is what it helps you to elicit about their situation.
  • When someone gives you a number – resist the temptation to ask how they might make progress and ask instead about how they got that high. When people are stuck, they don’t know what to do next, so there’s often little point in asking them straightaway what will move them up the scale. By exploring first what’s got them as high as they are on the scale, you will uncover clues as to how they might progress.
  • Scaling is a means of exploring individuals’ perceptions rather than fixed reality, so be flexible and open to exploring the whole of the scale.
  • State what 1 and 10 are, with 10 being the desired outcome/the future perfect or what the person wants and 1 being the opposite.
  • When establishing 1, make it likely the person will place themselves on the scale above 1. In the example above, 1 for Jane is being totally disorganised all the time. It is unlikely that she will say that this is the case, so Jane will probably place herself higher than 1. This provides the opportunity to explore how she got that high.
  • If somebody does say 1 or 0 – don’t panic! Remember, you can explore ‘shades of grey’: you might ask them how come it’s not minus 5, or you might ask them to tell you when it has been a bit higher. A low number also invites you to ask questions about how they are coping. You use the number to draw attention to what they are doing well, what resources they have and anything else that might be useful in terms of making progress.
  • Be aware that not everybody needs or wants to get to 10. Ask what would be good enough.
  • When asking for small steps, invite the person to tell you how they can get one step higher, rather than how they can get straight to 10. Here, the emphasis is on movement towards what’s wanted rather than being at 10. Of course, if they can get straight to 10, that’s great.
  • Before moving up the scale, it’s sometimes useful to ask people how they can keep the number they have – so the manager might have asked Jane how she proposed to maintain her 3; then they could focus on making progress.
  • Make it interactional where possible. As you explore the scale, invite the person to speculate about what their colleagues/clients/friends/boss might notice about them when they are at ‘n’ on the scale. What skills and attributes would others say the person possessed that enabled them to get to that point on the scale?