Photo - Homes for All
Wondering how to start this post on beginnings brought to mind this piece of advice I received as a young social worker, during a time management workshop delivered by an educational psychologist.
As I always felt submerged at the time, beneath all the pressing tasks I had to do in my Social Services job working with children and families, so many tasks that I didn’t know where to start, this was welcome advice indeed. So I typed it in big letters, printed and laminated it, and stuck it on the wall next to my desk.
When I was doing some background research in preparation for a workshop about the Solution-Focused Collective’s manifesto, I discovered that the educational psychologist might have borrowed his idea from the experimental composer, John Cage.
Bruce Mau, a Canadian designer, wrote what he called his Incomplete Manifesto for Growth, which includes:
9. Begin anywhere. John Cage tells us that not knowing where to begin is a common form of paralysis. His advice: begin anywhere.
(This is the 9th of 43 ideas in Mau’s manifesto, which he wrote as an attempt to answer the question: How does one sustain a creative life? I recommend taking a look at all of them).
So, why a post about beginnings? One reason is, I like them. I was lucky enough to attend a workshop 10 years ago with the constructivist psychologist, John Shotter, and I identified with him when he responded to a question about endings: “I don’t know about endings, beginnings are better!”
I’ve been thinking about beginnings a lot recently, but then, how can we not think about them. They happen so often. Each new morning, for example, and then on frequent other occasions throughout each day. In our work, each meeting, each visit, each session, each conversation, each piece of writing, has a beginning.
In my last blog post, I wrote “It’s worth considering how an interviewer starts a conversation, as its beginning will set a tone and influence what follows…”.
How might we start our conversations or meetings?
At the beginning of my training courses, I often share a quote from a book called Time To Think, by the organisational consultant, Nancy Kline:
People think better throughout the whole meeting if the very first thing they do is to say something true and positive about how their work or the work of the group is going (Kline, 1999, p107)
This nicely sets up an exercise in which I invite participants to ask each other questions designed to elicit 'true and positive' things about how their work is going.
One of the ways this idea has been taken into the beginnings of our solution-focused work with people has been through ‘problem-free talk’. Like many of the best ideas, this is a simple one, where the worker begins by asking about anything but the problem the person has come with - meet the person not the problem.
When I am training people who work with children, I often share Annie O’Leary’s Keys to Cooperation (2001), a useful sequence of three questions for kicking off a first meeting with a young person:
What do you enjoy?
What are you good at?
What does it take to be good at that?
The last two of these questions are not just asking about something other than a problem, which can sound a little neutral; they are more actively enquiring about skills and abilities. I began to use the term ‘competency talk’, instead of problem-free talk, to describe how I was starting work with the families I saw (Shennan, 2003), another favourite question being one that I’d seen Insoo Kim Berg ask parents, while pointing to a child they had brought with them: What’s she/he good at?
There’s some evidence that backs up this way of beginning, as psychologists Daniel Gassman and Klaus Grawe (2006) found that not only was ‘resource activation’ required for good outcomes in therapy, but that "successful therapists... focused on their clients’ strengths from the very start of a therapy session".
There is an argument though that the practitioner has no mandate to ask about anything until it has been established what the person wants from the work. Hence the first question has to be about what is wanted, or rather, what the person hopes for. The advantage of thinking and asking about hopes rather than wants is that hope implies possibility - something that the person doing the hoping thinks might happen, as well as wanting it to happen - and not just an idle wish.
Maybe this isn’t at odds though with starting with a person’s strengths, as hope can be and often is seen as a strength. This is one of the differences between hope and optimism - see Terry Eagleton’s 2015 book for a wonderful account of this - with optimism being thin and transient in comparison. Eagleton draws from many literary, theological and political sources, and that hope represents a strength that remains, even after devastating loss, is most clearly seen in the radical hope with which Plenty Coups and the Crow Nation, of which he was the last great Chief, faced the end of their way of life (Lear, 2006).
So, in summary, I sometimes start by asking about something people have been pleased to notice about themselves recently, or about what people do, or what they enjoy doing, or about their strengths, or their hopes from whatever we are embarking on. In supervision I sometimes start by asking my supervisee what is on their agenda for today, and then might begin by asking about strengths and what’s working or about their hopes in relation to each item in turn.
When reviewing how we do our supervision with a current supervisee recently, I asked if he had a preference about the different ways of beginning, to which he replied that he liked the variety.
Here are some questions about your beginnings, to finish off with.
How do you begin your work-based conversations, your sessions, your meetings?
What do you like about the ways you begin?
What will you not want to change about how you do your beginnings, no matter how many blog posts you read?
What have you liked about the way others have begun things with you?
How might you begin your next piece of work?
And now I shall bring this short post on beginnings to an end with an ending, a favourite last line from a favourite poem, Philip Larkin’s The Trees, which, Larkin tells us, seem to say, every May, that last year is dead, and so…
Begin afresh, afresh, afresh.
15 February 2022
Acknowledgement - my thanks to the participants of the joint Solution-Focused Practice Group session on 25 January 2022, for inspiring me to write this post.
Eagleton, T. (2015). Hope Without Optimism. New Haven: Yale University Press.
Gassman, D. and Grawe, K. (2006). General change mechanisms: the relation between problem activation and resource activation in successful and unsuccessful therapeutic interactions, Clinical Psychology and Psychotherapy, 13, 1, 1–11.
Kline, N. (1999). Time to Think: Listening to Ignite the Human Mind. London: Cassell.
Lear, J. (2006). Radical Hope: Ethics in the face of cultural devastation. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
O’Leary, A. (2001). Bridges to Babylon, in Y. Ajmal and I. Rees (eds) Solutions in Schools (pp. 174–187). London: BT Press
Shennan, G. (2003). Solution focused practice with families, in B. O’Connell and S. Palmer (eds) Handbook of Solution-Focused Therapy (pp. 38–47). London: Sage.