Solutions Focus Approach

by Paul Z Jackson

Using compliments and affirms

Compliments and affirms boost people’s awareness of their positive and useful resources.

I can live for two months on a good compliment.

Mark Twain

Before moving a change situation on (by, for example, deciding what actions people will take), it is often a good idea to affirm what is going well, and to articulate the resources that will help to fuel that action.

Questions to ask include

  • What have we identified that’s going well?
  • What are you/we contributing to making that happen?
  • What attributes, skills and resources have we been demonstrating?
  • What is impressing us?
  • What can we admire?
  • What is it about the people and the situation that gives us hope that there will be progress here?

The answers to these questions will typically result in a list of qualities, resources, skills and attributes. 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.
  • It sounds like it’s important to you that this is dealt with fairly.
  • You strike me as an optimistic person.
  • Not many people would have had your courage to confront that director.

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.

People perform better when they are appreciated. What can you find to appreciate in the suggestion that your colleague is making? What attributes of theirs do you value? What skills and qualities do you suspect they have that will be particularly useful for the immediate challenge? Mention these during the conversation and notice the impact they make. Remember, conversations are interactional – what can you do to help them to help you?

Because the affirm is one of the subtlest and most under-used tools in the Solutions Focus kitbag, we recommend that you look for as many opportunities as you can to practise it widely and often. We were once asked by a manager of a British company what would happen if affirms were over-used in an organisation. We replied, ‘We don’t know – it’s never been tried.’

To be most effective, the affirm should be

  • Well-directed – highlighting a quality that will be useful for the project
  • Experienced by the recipient as sincere
  • Based on evidence or at least a strong hunch (if it is a hunch, say so)
  • Offered as a possibility – if someone resists the affirm, don’t insist. (They’ve heard you anyway and may be demurring politely, while still taking in the implications of the compliment.)

It may take skilled detective work first to identify the resource and then to name it briefly and at an appropriate moment.

Practising affirms

Not all affirms are direct statements. You might wrap an affirm inside a pre-suppositional question. For example, after hearing about a string of efforts – perceived as failures by the person trying to get something done – you might ask, ‘How can we ensure that all your hard work doesn’t go to waste?’

If you can find value in what someone says – even if you don’t happen to agree with their suggestion – you can keep your conversations on a constructive track. It’s an adroit means of avoiding the sorts of unnecessary arguments that can easily flare up when someone feels they have been put down or not listened to.

You might also use an affirm to shift somebody from complaining to the beginnings of a constructive conversation. When we hear people complain, we have many choices; often we are tempted to join in, or to tell the moaner to go away, or to compete with bigger moans of our own, or tell them they don’t really a problem, or (a particular favourite in organisations) attempt to fix it for them.

With all of these responses, we are either joining them in the issue (problem talk), thus making it bigger, or giving the impression of not listening to them, which will also increase the likelihood that the complaint will not go away.

Next time you are talking to someone complaining about something, your task is to listen to the person’s complaint with your constructive ears. This means not getting involved in the topic, even if you have an opinion about it. Instead, listen for the person’s skills, attributes and talents and then feed them back to the person when they’ve finished.

It’s essentially detective work – spotting and naming skills, offering your evidence to support the affirm when necessary.

You might say, for example, ‘I’m impressed with your ability to keep calm when talking about something that annoys you so much’.

Author and lecturer Rayya Ghul, who formulated this idea, suggests practising this with a partner, when you both know the nature of the activity and are developing a skill. When you feel confident with the technique, you can be a secret affirmer, deploying it during a real, natural conversation.

As Robert Biswas-Diener tells us in his CAPP Flexible Learning study guide, Invitation to Positive Psychology, expressing gratitude is perhaps the best-known positive psychology intervention.

By expressing thanks and appreciation, we create a powerful affect for both the recipient and the giver, articulating contributions and our positive feelings about those contributions.

The value of an affirm

One purpose of an affirm is to create positive emotion in the recipient and research suggests that positive emotion improves performance. In one study, medical doctors receiving small gifts from researcher Alice Isen and colleagues made better and more careful diagnoses than doctors who didn’t receive gifts.

Barbara Frederickson proposes that positive emotions make us more curious and more experimental. These are useful qualities in relation to the feeling of safety and the creativity needed for more constructive conversations. In one study, for instance, Frederickson showed that people who had been induced into a good mood were more likely to want to try new things and to engage in a much wider range of activities than their emotionally-neutral counterparts. If your conversational partners are feeling more positive, perhaps they’ll also be in a more receptive mood for the ideas you wish to propose.

Case study

Swedish consultant Bjorn Johannson demonstrates the power of the affirm spoken by a manager in an industrial setting. Introducing solution-focused practices into a Kraft factory, Bjorn’s team heard of a worker who was responsible for a date-stamping machine. As the packages came off the production line, he was supposed to spot when this rather old machine started to malfunction and began stamping the wrong dates.

He was very poor at this job, and tended not to notice the mis-stamping until many packages had gone through, costing the company a great deal of money. The managers thought they had tried everything with him – gentle reminders, posters stressing the importance of watching the machine carefully, motivational talks, small punishments, threats of further discipline, even considering replacing the machine, which would have been very expensive, or sacking the worker, which would have caused difficulties with the union.

When the manager learned about the affirm, he decided it would be a good tactic to use. However long the machine ran incorrectly, he would let it run until the worker eventually spotted and corrected it. At that point, the manager would quietly affirm the worker for stopping the machine and thank him sincerely for saving the company money with his action. Unused to this treatment, the worker soon took pride in his ability to spot faults in the machine, and got quicker and quicker at stepping in and putting things right.