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Could using solution-focused techniques be dangerous?

I was going to write a blog post today designed to make anyone out there who makes mistakes when using the solution-focused approach (or doing anything else for that matter) feel better, by drawing on the ideas of the English philosopher, Gilbert Ryle.

However, I have run out of time to do that, but luckily I just came across this piece of advice I wrote for Solution News some years ago, while tidying up files on my laptop (a well-known procrastinating device). I hope this advice may still be useful, and here it is (The Solution News “Agony Solution-Focused Uncle” page was/is called “Dear gnus”. I was the gnu here):

“Dear gnus, are there any circumstances under which using solution focused techniques might be ill-advised or dangerous?”

I was once working with a rather feisty woman who lived in a tough part of Leicester. She arrived for a session one day – it was probably our third or fourth – and before I could ask her “what’s better?” she said “I’ve had a bloody awful week, and if you start asking me any of those bloody scale questions, I’ll clock you one!” That was a time when using a particular solution focused technique would probably have been ill-advised and possibly even dangerous…and I doubt I went on to start with “what’s better?” either. So if we listen hard enough – and sometimes we will not have to listen so hard – our clients, through their unique ways of cooperating, will let us know when not to use certain solution focused techniques and when to do something different.

Shifting from particular techniques to considering the approach overall, in the latest instalment of his outcome studies published in the Journal of Family Therapy, Alasdair Macdonald (2005) reports effectiveness rates in line with other studies – 76% – and adds his finding that when the approach is ineffective, it does not appear to be harmful. Our current knowledge base does not enable us to predict in advance who will and will not be helped by solution focused brief therapy, but we do know that it is likely to help three out of every four people who walk through our door. So, on first meeting someone it would appear to be well-advised to use solution focused brief therapy, and that it will be safe to do so. And the best and safest advice we will receive as the work progresses will come from listening to our clients.

Ref – Macdonald, Alasdair (2005) Brief therapy in adult psychiatry: results from fifteen years of practice, Journal of Family Therapy, 27, 1, 65-75

Addendum – let me add, on reflection, another time when using solution-focused techniques might be dangerous – when one should be doing something else instead, whether it’s fixing a faulty electrical connection, slowing down where there’s poor visibility, or carrying out careful risk assessments when someone that one is working with does not appear to be  safe…

Gilbert Ryle post to follow!

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