Solutions Focus Approachby Paul Z Jackson
Problem talk versus solutions talk
If you want to have consistently constructive conversations, perhaps the most important distinction to grasp is the distinction 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.
Most people spend more time and energy going around problems than in trying to solve them.
There is a great deal of problem talk in the world, which is not surprising, because people experience many problems and naturally want to talk about them. They want to tell other people about their personal problems, probe into other folk’s interesting problems, and discuss the problems of the world. Whether the problem is small or large, trivial or earth-shattering, people want to talk about it.
They may even want to solve these problems and expect that the conversations about the problems are part of the problem-solving effort. There’s an entire industry of problem-solving, with an extensive bookshelf of titles dedicated to the arts of solving problems – societal, industrial, team, familial, marital and individual.
And there is, of course, merit in problem-solving, when it is successful. And therefore there is merit in problem talk, if it’s the sort that leads to solved problems, or if it leads to understanding (if that’s what you want) or to have ‘got something off your chest’ (if that’s what you want).
In fact, problem talk has had such a history of success, especially in analysis-driven professions, such as medicine, engineering and all their derivatives, that it has become (for most people) an automatic way of talking and thinking about topics whenever something is not as satisfactory as it might be.
We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.
Yet it is possible that the value of problem talk is over-rated and that there may be a more useful way of discussing matters, particularly when problems persist and problem talk is failing to help us solve some of the more complex, knotty issues that people and organisations face. In such cases, it’s worth considering that problem talk may be making things worse. If we can have constructive conversations, it is also possible to have destructive conversations, where the talk leads to ‘stuckness’ or further difficulties. Perhaps focusing on problems magnifies the perception of the problem, making people more miserable, more depressed, less optimistic and less resourceful.
An alternative means of discourse is Solutions Talk. 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 get to desired states of affairs.
It is possible that we are on an historic cusp, where the mechanical view of the world that has served us so well for the past two hundred years can be usefully superseded by a complexity view of the world in which attending to systems and their dynamic interactions will produce better results. If so, our conversations – the way we use our language and our thoughts – will need to adapt and catch up to make the most of this shift.
Let’s consider some examples to ensure we have a good sense of the difference between problem talk and solutions talk.
Meet the manager, the coach and the parent
We met Hans Zeinhofer at a conference where delegates were discussing the application of solutions-focused ideas in organisations. Hans was the general manager of a power supply company in Austria, and he described the crisis they had faced when a confusing letter was sent to all their customers, which many interpreted to mean they would be cut off from their supply. The letter prompted thousands of calls and complaints from customers, overwhelming the switchboards and customer care department.
Somehow they got through the crisis and two weeks later Hans convened a meeting of his managers to discuss what had happened.
The expected topic for this meeting was ‘to discuss the reasons for this incredible disaster’. In such a meeting, managers would explore how the letter got out there – perhaps identifying who wrote it, where they had gathered their misinformation, who had authorised it and who failed to prevent it. Then they would explore the weaknesses of the switchboard and other response mechanisms. There would probably be several people to blame, with departments accusing each other of various failings. And perhaps eventually measures would be proposed to stop such a letter ever being issued again.
It was, therefore, a meeting that the managers were not looking forward to with any degree of pleasure.
But Hans had recently attended a training course in the Solutions Focus approach and decided – ‘very nervously’ – to put his new learnings into practice. He went into the meeting, he told us, and put these questions onto a chart: ‘What did we do right? What went well?’ He told the assembled managers that they might find this strange, but he’d like them to consider this question first. Later, if they wished, they could explore the expected question of what went wrong. In other words, he opted for solutions talk before problem talk.
Gradually, the managers got the idea, and they began to describe what had worked: the crisis had, after all, been dealt with. The customer relations team had responded politely to all the complaints; other managers had come to help as the volume of calls increased; they had swiftly issued a new letter to all the customers, explaining and apologising for the mistake; they had actually lost hardly any customers, and they were on track for their main commercial goal. And so the list went on.
Hans said that they never got to the discussion of what went wrong. By the time they had finished the discussion of what had worked, of what they had done well, they were ready to begin a new list: ‘What will we do better (the next time)?’ All the managers knew what actions they needed to take – not only to ensure that the problem would never arise again, but also to implement and sustain a range of other improvements to their systems that would lead to more efficiency and improved customer service.
In this example, we contrast the different directions the conversation might take, depending whether a coach takes a problem or a solution track.
Rhiannon is a finance manager, who has been in her role for eight years. She tells her coach that she would like to be promoted to finance director within her organisation. Then she says, ‘The trouble is, I’m terrified of public speaking, and I know that the finance director has to present at the big management meetings and also to the board. So I’m thinking I won’t apply for the job.’
The coach picks up on what Rhiannon is seeking and attempts to overlook the problem talk of ‘terrified’ by rephrasing what he thinks she might want as preparation for the desired new role. He says, ‘You’d like the job – and to apply for it, you’d want to be comfortable to present at senior management meetings and to the board?’
Rhiannon replies, ‘I’d be able to apply for bigger jobs if I felt comfortable enough to present at senior management meetings. In fact, I have to speak at the next management meeting as my boss is going to be away and he’s asked me to present the figures for him.’
The coach asks, ‘You’re speaking at this meeting... when?’
Rhiannon says, ‘On Thursday. It must be some deep-seated irrational fear that I’ve got, because I know my stuff and I’ll tell you what, I can teach, I’ve been doing that for five years... mind you, that’s different, as it’s to students not peers.’
This time the coach is drawn into the problem talk as he says, ‘This sounds tough. You’ve got this fear of presenting that is holding you back in your career, and you’ve been asked to present on Thursday. How long have you had this fear, and where do you think it came from?’
Rhiannon replies, ‘It started when I was a fifth-form student at school, when I was in a debate. I was shaking and couldn’t think what to say. I’m sure everyone was laughing at me. I guess it’s a lack of confidence and a fear of ridicule. Why should I put myself in such an exposed position – it’s horrible.’
By inviting Rhiannon to explore her fear, it is possible that the coach and Rhiannon will learn more about it, perhaps allowing her to confront it or to challenge or deal with it in some way – or perhaps not. It may be productive, but it is not so likely to take them on the direct route to what is wanted. Let’s see how a solutions talk conversation might have led in a different direction.
Suppose the coach asks instead about a resource that is potentially useful for achieving what the client wants in relation to the issue of speaking/gaining promotion. Maybe they can side-step the history of the fear and steer the conversation towards the client’s resources.
In this alternative scenario, the coach asks, ‘You’ve been teaching for that long, how do you do that?’
Rhiannon says, ‘Well, I say to myself before I start “Rhiannon, slow down” and then I say to the students that I tend to speak fast and if I do that please can they ask me to slow down.’
The coach continues on the trail of resources, ‘Anywhere else that you teach?’ Rhiannon adds, ‘Yes, I was asked to design a two-day workshop for my peers... I was terrified of doing it, but I slowed my speech down and it was so good that they’ve asked me back to run it many times now. I just need to remind myself to slow down when I present, don’t I?
Fourteen-year-old Thomas tells his mother during breakfast, ‘I want to miss school today. I don’t feel very well. There’s this science test and I’ve done hardly any revision, so I don’t want to go. I promise I’ll do some work at home.’
Mother could reply with problem talk and ask about how unwell Thomas feels, or criticise him for the inadequate revision (again!). Or she could take a solutions tack, noting perhaps, ‘You’ve done some revision – what topic did you do?’ and find out what he remembers about that. The tack chosen will determine whether or not they have a constructive conversation.
Of course, some people love talking about problems and they can probably find others willing to join them in problem talk. If we remember the principle – solutions, not problems – we realise we don’t always have to accept that invitation. There’s the possibility of overlooking a great deal of problem talk in favour of discussing solutions – what you and others want and how you can get it – instead.