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How did WE do it?

In this past year of the coronavirus and Covid, it might be that something else is being transmitted.

Something collaborative, something collective, travelling through the air.

And the two things might be connected.

On one training day recently, I invited people to do an exercise which encouraged them to focus on questions of agency - Bring to mind a recent achievement of yours… How did you manage to do this? What else did you do that helped it to happen? etc etc.

Listening to people’s reflections afterwards, it seemed that this hadn’t fitted very easily for one participant. The individualised focus had got in the way, as she said that, in terms of achievements at work: “We do it as a team”.

It was near the start of another training day, and one of the group had had trouble getting into Zoom. By the time she arrived, her colleagues were in breakout rooms, doing their first exercise. I had shared something that Nancy Kline wrote in her book, Time To Think, about starting meetings: “People think better throughout the meeting if the very first thing they do is to say something true and positive about their work or about how the work of the group is going”.

I explained this to the late arriver, and asked her the question that the others were taking it turns to ask each other in their small groups: What have you been pleased to notice about how you’ve been working recently?

Having first mentioned what a tough year it had been for them all at work, given the pandemic, she responded: “So what I’ve been pleased to notice is how the team has rallied round”.

These responses have made me think. They have made me wonder afresh about how far solution-focused practice is an individualised endeavour, and whether it is intrinsically so, and about whether the way it is taught can either emphasise such aspects or provide a counterweight to them.

The most straightforward context in which to use the approach is where one person is talking with one other, and that is certainly the most straightforward context to set up for practice exercises to take place in. Skills that are developed in one-to-one interactions can then be taken into situations where work is being done with families, groups, organisations and communities.

However, the responses of these two course participants were not so much about questions being asked by one person of another, but about the focus of the questions, and where they were encouraging the person being asked to direct their attention.

We don’t achieve things alone, or just through our own agency, there is no doubt about that. And Nancy Kline’s idea as quoted above is not just to focus people on what they are pleased to notice about their individual selves, but on the work of their group too. While I have always been aware of that, my priority for these exercises has been on questions that encourage people to take their individual share of credit for things that have gone well.

One idea underlying this is that we need to focus on our individual agency in making changes in our lives. We can only be responsible for what we do ourselves as individuals, and, focusing on and amplifying what we have been (individually) able to do in the past will help us to do more and other things in the future.

Another idea that has led me to follow the first part of Nancy Kline’s idea - "if the very first thing they do is to say something true and positive about their work” - rather than the second part - “or about how the work of the group is going” - is that course participants will be more energised and engaged by focusing on what they have done as individuals than by focusing on their teams.

These recent responses I have received might be challenging this.

To encourage them to focus their interviewees on their own individual agency, I light-heartedly warn interviewers that their interviewees are likely to be modest, and might want to assign the credit for achievements elsewhere. I do have a hunch that people in helping jobs tend to be modest, as they spend a lot of their time thinking of others, but perhaps it was as much a recognition of the importance of others that led my course members to focus on what others have done.

Times as tough as those of the past year teach us about the importance of others, as we would not be able to get through them on our own. This was the message of an essay called The Coronation, by Charles Eisenstein, which, written during the first set of lockdowns around the world, posed the question, “What world shall we live in?” and proposed that “Life is Community”.

Eisenstein referenced a marvellous book by Rebecca Solnit, A Paradise Built in Hell, which considered that one of the effects of disasters was to liberate solidarity. “Covid has gifted us a reset”, he suggested.

The resetting of one or two of my exercises is a rather minor thing, to say the least, but all the same, it is a good lesson to have learned from two of my course members. Future course members will more often be invited to consider collective as well as individual agency, what they have been pleased to notice about their teams and others around them, and what they will notice about others in their “preferred futures’.

As Eisenstein said: “A more beautiful world shimmers just beneath the surface”.

Guy Shennan

20th April 2021

PS There will be a lot of collective agency gathering and energy developing on Thursday 20th May. That date will see the second meeting of the joint Solution-Focused Practitioners Group (jSFPG) that Marc Gardiner of the Zebra Collective and I are running together. Anyone who has received some SF training and is keen to develop their SF skills and knowledge in the company of others is most welcome to join us. For more details, including how to book, click here.

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