Solutions Focus Approachby Paul Z Jackson
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.
These six principles, forming the acronym SIMPLE, provide you with a comprehensive checklist to ensure that your work in any change setting will be as constructive as possible.
Let’s look at them in turn.
The first principle is to focus on solutions, not problems. This is a notion to help you get what you want by keeping on track, not wasting time discussing what you don’t want. For example, you might be a manager dealing with Andy, a member of staff who is consistently turning up late. Focusing the conversation on what you don’t want – Andy turning up late – is likely to lead to accusatory-sounding questions, such as ‘Why are you always late?’, followed by denials, defensiveness or excuses, none of which get you any closer to your desires.
What you want is Andy turning up on time, so we suggest you focus the conversation on that, with more constructive questions, such as ‘What has to happen for you to get here on time?’
You can focus on solutions as part of your planning for meetings, for example, 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. You might plan to say ‘Let’s talk about how we can ensure you get to work on time... You arrived in good time three days last week – how did you achieve that?’ You can maintain your focus on solutions during the conversation by checking, as it goes along, that it is still about the desired aspects of the topic and not wandering into the dangerous and less helpful territories of what’s not wanted and the dire consequences thereof.
The next principle is inbetween – which reminds us that the action is in the interaction. It’s not just about the other person (or people) and it’s not just about you. It’s about the interaction between the two (or more) of you, which stands a chance of changing things by the end of the meeting or conversation.
For example, in conflicts, you both want something and there’s a good chance that you will get more of what you want if you acknowledge (at the very least) what your partner wants and – better still – can go some way towards helping them get it, even if it is partly at the expense of what you want. Plan in advance what you might be willing to give away, and make it clear during the conversation that you are interested in the other party’s outcomes.
The inbetween principle reminds you that your part of a conversation can be altered (from what you thought you might say) by what the other person says. And what you say will affect – moment to moment – what they say. This opens up possibilities, as we see below.
One office receptionist told us during a workshop that many of the people who approached her desk or called her on the phone were miserable and rude. She said she felt the place was gloomy and realised that she was feeling gloomy too. Determined to make her reception area a happier place to spend her days, she started smiling at everybody as they entered the building, saying ‘good morning’, asking how their weekend had been and generally being more cheery. She also changed her telephone greeting by adding a friendly ‘hello’ before identifying the organisation. She noticed over time that visitors seemed to be happier; not only were they now smiling at her, they were smiling at each other. Callers, too, were friendlier and the gloom she had been feeling had somehow lifted from the building.
Make use of what’s there
Our third principle is make use of what’s there, which means taking advantage of how matters actually are. If you can accept whatever it is you are facing, you are in a good position to utilise whatever that may be – in contrast, perhaps, to wishing it were different, or complaining about what’s missing or not there.
You have within you right now, everything you need to deal with whatever the world can throw at you.
A good starting point for making use of what’s there is to be aware of your own resources for the conversations you are embarking upon. What do you have that counts usefully for you – a certain authority, statutory or titular rights, good reasons for what you want to propose, personal credibility, credit in your emotional bank account? How might these play their part in your constructive conversation?
Making use of what’s there also encourages you to improvise as the conversation develops, just as you might improvise a meal from whatever ingredients you found in your fridge if friends turned up unexpectedly. You’ll learn in another section about the improvisational skills of listening, acknowledging and creative response, all of which will help you achieve more of what you want in your encounters.
We were working with a senior manager, Martin, whose organisation had just taken over another, smaller company, with the aim of making it more productive. Staff in the new acquisition had a reputation for taking long tea-breaks – a clear example of their lack of dynamism, which presented both a problem and an opportunity.
Martin was worried about the different cultures and excessive breaks, so we asked him how he might make use of this. Thinking about how to make use of what was there, Martin came up with the idea of introducing himself to his new colleagues, and letting them know the ethos and expectations of the company they now found themselves part of – during the tea-breaks.
Suddenly the tea-breaks became a more productive part of the working day, and Martin’s neat initiative allowed the staff to make the transition to the new ways of working far more seamless and painless than Martin or they had previously imagined.
P is for possibilities – from the past, present and future. For possibilities from the past, you are encouraged to recall previously successful meetings, perhaps with the same people, perhaps on the same sort of topic with someone else. Maybe there are hints or inspirations there that can help you this time.
Future possibility is your sense that the project you are working on can go well – that you are approaching it with hope. Consider what it is that you hope for and what grounds you may have for optimism here.
Remember, too, the concept of the interactional world, which may invoke a feeling of flexibility and possibility in the present. It means you can reduce the assumptions in your head about how matters are going to go. You don’t have to think, for example, that it is going to be difficult. Perhaps it won’t be. Suppose, instead, that it goes well: how will you know; what will you be saying, and what will other people involved be saying?
The next principle is language – clear not complicated. Your conversations will be more constructive if you and other people involved understand what is going on. It will help keep everyone on track if you use vocabulary that is as simple as possible, avoiding complicated words, phrases and jargon.
Whenever possible, use the words spoken by the people you are dealing with – speak their language. Sometimes you will need to paraphrase to check you have understood, or to summarise a long passage of speech. At other times, you’ll benefit from using their exact words. This will indicate to the other person that you have been listening carefully and that they have been heard. We can suppose that they know what they mean by their words, so your interpretation is unlikely to be required or welcome.
In one consulting session, an engineer told us, ‘The problem is the supervisor’s superiority complex with the N-types’. We noted this word-for-word on the flipchart and asked, ‘What is it you want with the supervisor’s superiority complex with the N-types?’ He leapt with excitement and said, ‘Yes, I know exactly what to do. Brilliant!’ And this appeared to end our conversation satisfactorily for him. To this day we still have no idea what was going on with the supervisor or the N-types.
Every case is different
The final principle is to appreciate how every case is different. This brings a couple of distinct benefits. One is to remind you to remain alert to what is uniquely to your advantage in this situation. The other is to save you from applying tactics that may have worked before and being surprised that they don’t work this time. For example, suppose you are trying to make a sale to a new customer. With previous sales, the critical factor has always been price – and you know you are willing to offer a discount to make the sale. Just before you play your familiar discount card, you suddenly realise that this time the discussion is all about some other aspect of the service – quality, perhaps, or speed of delivery – and by alert improvisation in the moment and going with the new flow of the conversation, you are able to increase your profit margin and still give the client everything that matters to them.
A handy question to ask yourself before or during any encounter – particularly one that may be problematic or tricky – is, ‘What might I be able to do in this discussion that I’ve not done before?’ Always look for the unique opportunity.