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What is Solution Focused Practice?

Solution focused practice involves helping people to change their lives for the better by focusing on their existing strengths, ideas and strategies, rather than on the problem. This approach was developed throughout the 1980s and 1990s in the USA, and has been used with children and adults alike. The fundamental basis of this approach is that everyone is the expert on their own life. The focus is always on the positive aspects of a person's life, rather on what they denote as problems. This approach has been useful for focusing care plans on hopes, strengths, and improving family relationships. It is in line with legislation such as the Care Act 2014, which has a strengths-based approach.

A key early element of this approach focused on exceptions to problems experienced by service users. For example, a violent individual will also experience times in their life when they are less impulsive. Another individual with drinking problems will experience moments when they resist the urge to have another drink. This approach focuses on what works for people. It also focuses on the future. A key element of this is the so-called ‘miracle’ question, which asks clients to describe and detail their problem-free future.

This approach is minimalist, in that it is based on as little intervention as possible. It is also more focused on the service user’s desired outcome, rather than an externally imposed agenda. It asks the service user to describe their ideal outcome, and focuses on moments of progress. It involves the visualization of a preferred future, and the differences this would make in an individual's life. The first session will typically identify the individual’s desired outcome, which will then guide the rest of the work. This can be challenging for some social workers, who are more used to externally imposed statutes.

Another key element of this approach is its focus on solutions, moving away from the notion that it is necessary to focus on problems in order to resolve them. In fact, this philosophy suggests that focusing on problems can prolong them. Even focusing on exceptions to a problem can keep it in view to some extent. The focus is on instances of a preferred future that are already happening. For example, an individual with aggressive tendencies could be asked what they did instead when they had the urge to shout or use physical violence. This requires the practitioner to identify what the client would like their life to be like, without their problem getting in the way. A key question is what the client has been doing recently that is more in line with what they would like to be doing in general.

Although there will be a tendency for clients to focus on problems, practitioners can use coping questions. These questions focus on how the client is managing to cope with difficult situations, even if these are isolated incidents. For example, the practitioner could ask a client how they managed to maintain their composure in a difficult situation. Questions will also focus on the future, and how the client will know when things are improving.

The practitioner should be maintaining a position of acknowledgement and possibility, and should have a constructive ear, always listening for the positive elements of any difficult situation. For example, if a client says they have hardly had any positive moments with their family, the practitioner can focus on the instances when there have been positive interactions. What can the client learn from those interactions? The advantage of this is that the focus is on the person's own ways of making progress, rather than on solutions being offered by the practitioner. If things have been improving, the focus would be on the factors that have led to that improvement. There is also an absence of assessment in solution-based practice, although there are practical models being developed incorporating solution-focused elements with elements of assessment. This type of assessment can be necessary when there is a significant risk of harm, for example.

The solution-focused approach is empowering for service users, as the emphasis is on their own way of doing things, rather than imposing the opinions of ‘experts.’ This could improve the receptiveness of clients, as it focuses on their hopes and wishes. Communication is also key, and depending on the situation, could involve role play movement or drawing. If a person wishes for their life to be different, and is willing to participate in the process and communicate their ideas, then the potential for change is great. The approach is simple in theory, and can be introduced to social workers in a short seminar. However, to fully grasp the concepts and put them into practice, a lifetime of learning and reflection is required.


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