Keeping it Simple
One of the most challenging features of SF is its simplicity. I hear people new to the approach saying that there are many more tools to learn in SF. I disagree.
In my opinion, you have all the tools you need on day one of an introductory course. Your task is to learn how to use them.
It is this simplicity that confounds. The expectation of learning is that you become more complex in your knowledge and application. In SF, the simpler you become, the more effective your practice will be.
There is a letting go of what we know, and the less we know the more useful our interventions become. In the process, we develop humility and curiosity. The less we do, the more effective we are likely to be. Not knowing is a stance which is desirable. It is the client who is the expert in their own experience.
The therapists’ expertise is to be ‘in’ conversation with the expertise of the client. The therapist now becomes the learner to be informed, rather than a technical expert who knows.
Goolishian and Anderson
One of the most striking examples of this simplicity is that we do the same things regardless of what is presented to us. We listen for what people want and what they are doing/ have done already. This changes the conversation from what is not wanted to what is wanted. Possibly the most important feature of the approach.
Recently, I have been reminded of the importance of staying neutral when working with clients. It can be tempting to focus on our efforts, what we are doing. Why not? You may ask. It seems obvious that we want to be useful and asking great questions.
However, SF questions are largely mundane; you ask similar questions repeatedly as you build stories of difference. It is not about you. It can seem to be unexciting.
As we ask these mundane questions, clients come up with exciting answers; that is where the rewards lie. It is in the building of the conversation, the response to the questions; the interaction, the co-construction of stories of difference, preference and possibility, call it what you will.
There is no such thing as a brilliant question; there is only a brilliant answer, so any question could prove to be brilliant; you simply never know. You also never know what question you have asked until you hear the reply.
When these answers come, SF is simple, you join with the client in their discovery of stories which exist but were not being told, matching their level of enthusiasm.
In my experience, it is most useful to continue to be curious about the client’s experiences. Asking them how they did things, what was useful about them, who else noticed, what difference it made. In the process of answering these brilliantly mundane questions, they give themselves compliments and recognise their successes. So much more powerful than us giving them compliments or trying to convince them of the value of their exploits.
To change the dynamics of therapy, place your client in the role of consultant; they then become an authority in their own life.
Epston and White
So, what happens when these stories do not come easily? How do we proceed? The temptation can be to work harder, desperately grasp any tiny morsels and amplify them, give compliments, get more excited than our clients, come up with more questions, feel responsible, doubt our abilities…
All actions designed, with good reasons, to attempt to elicit change. However, this strategy also runs the risk of losing connection and even creating resistance.
Resistance is the client’s unique way of cooperating.
Steve de Shazer
It is under these circumstances that SF comes into its own. These clients are a gift; they give you the opportunity to refine your SF practice.
So, what should you do?
If you find yourself being more excited, working harder, wanting change more, going faster, than your client, then these are sure signs that you need to slow down, take a step back, ease up, get curious, allow the client time to think, possibly review the aims of your work together.
Never work harder than your client. They are the experts in their own lives; it is your job to consult with their expertise, allowing them to use the space to work things out for themselves.
If you are working harder than your client, you are taking up space. It becomes more about you and less about them.
I describe my own work as being on the outside of the clients’ world. Constantly curious about what they want and asking questions about what they find useful. It is entirely about them and what they want. I aim to be invisible. It is not for me to decide what matters to them. It is my job to find out from them and then cooperate with their endeavours.
As soon as we become enthusiastic about their changes, we run the risk of wandering into their world and taking over their space. Tread carefully!
There can be a temptation to complicate SF and work harder, especially when things do not flow smoothly. The apparent paradox is that the most useful response is to simplify things. Go back to the basics of being curious about what is wanted, listening, and responding to the answers given. Slowing down and consulting with the client as expert in their own experiences.
Paradoxically, it is our job to both care greatly about our clients, and at the same time have no investment in their choices. Many clients have told me that the most useful feature of talking with me is that I do not have an agenda, so they can be completely open and come up with their own answers.
Remember, it is the space that we provide that is one of the most important factors for client change.
Anderson, H. and Goolishian, H. (1992) The Client is the Expert: a Not-Knowing Approach to Therapy in McNamee, S and Gergen, K. (eds) Therapy as Social Construction, London, Sage.
De Shazer, S 1984 The Death of Resistance. Family Process 23: 11-17 1984.
White, M. and Epston, C. (1990) Narrative Means to Therapeutic Ends, New York, Norton.