By Coert Visser
Do you remember when you heard about the solution-focused approach for the very first time? Could you talk a bit about what that situation was and what your very first thoughts and your reaction were to it?
There are many ways to answer this question. I can honestly say that I first thought about “SF” in 1984, 1987 and 2001. In 2001, I was working as an intercultural coach and trainer and desperately wanted to go to the post-conference workshop at the coaching conference in Grindelwald. The organizer for the workshop was a Dr. Peter Szabo, and he wanted 2700 Swiss Franks for three days and that was a lot of money for me. So I called up this Dr. Szabo and asked whether he needed a translator for that course and if I could come for free if I agreed to translate. Peter said, sadly, that no, he did not need a translator for this workshop, but that there was another workshop with an American lady, Insoo Kim Berg, and a Belgium guy called Louis Cauffman. Could I do simultaneous translation for them and go to the post-conference workshop for free? I thought “why not?” and read a few of Insoo’s books and listened to her tapes to prepare for the translation. I loved what I read and heard immediately (this is where the 1984 came in) because it seemed to me such a respectful, non-interpretative, normal, intelligent and straightforward way of helping people.
As a theology student in 1984, I had been very interested in pastoral counseling and went to a university orientation seminar for counseling. Now, I don’t want to be impolite now, but my 18 year old self was disgusted at what she heard. I would need to do a 12 month, 1 day a week “encounter group” with a psychotherapist to work on my own issues (which I did not think I had at the time) before I would be allowed to learn how to help others. For me, always rather on the rational side, this seemed ludicrous, and I just could not see the connection. I wanted to learn how to help others respectfully and not deal with problems that are interpreted into me from the outside. I was confirmed in my rejection of the course by the fact that many students who did participate turned from straightforward normal people into people who would react in strange ways: instead of disagreeing with me on a point, for example, they would comment on my presumed relationship with my father which causes me to be rebellious – again a notion that I felt was less than helpful. So, in a way, I came into contact with SF in the negative in 1984 – I knew what I did not want.
In 1987, during my studies of linguistics, I read works of Ludwig Wittgenstein, and there was also an immediate connection. Emphasizing what you “do” with language rather than discussing endlessly over the essence of things proved to be a very nice shortcut to many philosophical problems (and more amusingly also the rampant political correctness debates in the late 1980ies).
So, when I met Insoo and Louis in 2001, things really fell into place for me: here was a way to help people that would consciously use language, refrain from disrespectful interpretation, let the client set the goals for themselves and not turn people into weirdos in the process. I bought this immediately! It also helped that Louis and Insoo and I had a lot of fun at the conference dinners. Luckily I got to translate for Insoo and Steve a lot after Grindelwald. With every translation I learned more about how they did what they did.
That’s interesting. If I remember well, Steve de Shazer found it interesting and even useful to work with a translator, didn’t he? I am curious about your thoughts on this and also about what you learned from doing it?
I think Steve liked to work with a translator because it slowed down the process of answering and asking. While I was translating his question and then the answer of the client, he could relax and think. One of the main points that I like about SF is that it emphasizes the emergent process of a conversation – we don’t plan a strategy but we listen closely to what the client says and pick out what seems useful. In translating it became very obvious what Steve and Insoo picked up: signs of what the client wants and signs of what is already working or can give confidence that things will improve. I learned to pay very close attention to the exact language that they used and that the client used and tried to keep my translation as close as possible to the original. If the client used “stupid boss”, I would translate “stupid boss” and not change it to “uncomfortable superior” in the next sentence. What is left out also becomes apparent – details of the problem or interpretations and explanations. I also noticed how messy spoken language is and the curves and loops that Steve especially took before he had identified which question he wanted to ask. What also struck me was the “game of differentiation vs. generalization”. Clients sometimes came with diagnoses like “I have bulimia” – and even when I did not know a lot about SF I realized that Steve and Insoo would not pick that up but go into the details of a “better”.
After becoming a solution-focused coach and trainer/facilitator you started conducting many workshops, not only in your home country Germany but also in several other countries, didn't you? Could you tell a bit about the different types of workshops you have done and what your experiences were of introducing the solution-focused approach to people from such diverse cultures?
In the last years, I have worked in many places and designed workshops for delivery in even more places. One of the projects I was involved in was the global leadership development program for a global corporation. I worked with the material of an international HR development company and helped design and put together workshops on topics like delegation, managing conflicts, self-management, cross-cultural communication etc. Another experience was developing the leadership development program for a Central Asian National Bank which I designed and developed with my own SF material. I am currently involved in the design and roll-out of an innovative SF leadership program at a multinational semi-conductor company and I have coached executives from many different countries.
I found – maybe not surprisingly – that SF was the one thing that would always work. Global companies use their leadership development programs as a way to implement their strategy: the management thinks hard about what kind of behaviors they would like to see, which kind of people and leadership are conducive to their overall goals. The leadership development program should support this strategic orientation – so on the one hand, it needs to be global, but on the other hand it has to fit the local requirements. When you design global programs that have to fit heterogeneous audiences (from German engineers to Brazilian factory supervisors), it is very important that the program is flexible and can start at the exact point where every participant is at, so that everyone can make a step into a useful direction. You can see right here that an expert approach to management development will have difficulties here: for some the content will be trite for others completely unusable because of cultural reasons and only some lucky ones will get a program that fits. Solution Focus is a very good way to help every group to advance in their experience: I used a lot of scaling, asking people to identify their highlights in small groups, asking the groups to identify their own “critical incidents” and reflecting teams to find out what to do. Of course, there was also interesting content – but in my view, the most important things happened in the SF interactions of the participants. In the leadership development program that I am running currently, I even went further: the company’s leaders had requested only 10% theory in the sessions. What a gift to me! The program is organized in 7 modules with two four hour sessions per topic. This way, participants can gain experience between sessions and reflect on what’s working in the next session. Very SF, very useful.
There are two areas where using SF can be a bit tricky in intercultural situations that I have experienced. In Germany, my own country, being too positive and appreciative can be a sign of lack of competence and honesty. So I tone it down, depending on my audience – but, obviously, in good SF practice you would be using the language of your clients anyway and would not fall into the trap of going "WOW, SUPER!" to a client whose best appraisal is: "Actually, not bad". The other issue that I have sometimes encountered is the use of the miracle question (no, not using the miracle question in business contexts – I do that all the time and it works perfectly) or another future perfect. I’m not sure if it has to do with Islamic cultures or not, but both in Dubai and in Bosnia I encountered reluctance to imagine a future perfect. There was a bit of: “Well, one cannot really know, can one … and maybe one should not think about these things, really”. At the time, I understood that the difficulty is about imagining the future and not about imagining the “perfect”. I switched to asking about a perfect dream in one case and about describing a parallel universe (this was a bunch of computer geeks, so they related to things like star wars and such) in the other and the difficulty went away. Otherwise, SF has worked just great in all cultures that I have encountered – and I think the only blank spot I have is most of Africa.
A few years ago, you have started the journal ‘InterAction, the journal of SF in organisations’. Could you tell a bit about this journal?
Well, it wasn’t actually just me who started it. Mark McKergow and I had been toying with the idea for a long time – I just happened to announce it and start it. Carey Glass, Anton Stellamans, Mark McKergow and me, and of course Jenny Clarke, who is not officially on the editorial board but does a lot of work all have an equal share. The same is true for our authors and advisory board. InterAction is “the journal for solution focus in organisations” and we publish 2-3 peer reviewed academic articles, 1-2 case studies, book reviews, a research digest, an interview and an editorial per issue. We want to continue to give SF a voice in academia and practice. So far, InterAction has been a great success: We are available at Ingenta Connect, an online access to journals and we are working on being catalogued and accessible in university journal services. Through the peer review process, we have been able to make connections with people that Mark McKergow calls “the great and the good” of SF and many related fields: we are connected to the British Wittgenstein Society, people from the complexity field, business schools and many more interesting people. And of course, last but not least, we receive great feedback from our readers. “This is one of the few journals where I can’t wait to read every single page – everything is relevant and interesting” was a comment I heard recently from a Swiss colleague.