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  • Guy

Together and alone - beautiful both

I had a typically good time in the bi-monthly joint Solution-Focused Practice Group last week, though it wasn’t a typical session, in that my co-facilitator, Marc Gardiner wasn’t with me. He was unavoidably taken up with responsibilities with his worker cooperative, the Zebra Collective, and it was the first time we had not run the group together since we launched it at the beginning of 2021. It still seemed very much a joint group, partly as we felt Marc there in spirit, and also because it is so participative anyway, so each session is a joint creation between us as facilitators and the group participants.

When I began planning what to do, I found that being on my own, in a group that was usually co-run, started to give me some ideas. ‘Both-and’ thinking came to my aid, as I realised that I liked both doing things with other people and doing things on my own. The idea of a couple of complementary solution-focused exercises started to form in my mind. Sometimes we have to do things with others and sometimes we have to do things by ourselves. A solution-focused approach to these two different situations might be to consider what is good, or useful, about each of them.

While I was thinking about the first, where we are working with other people, a distant memory of an exercise in a long ago workshop came to mind - my first ever workshop at the annual European Brief Therapy Association (EBTA) conference, which was the first one of these conferences I attended, in Carlisle in 1999. I presented on my work with the Early Response Project, a therapeutic service I ran for the Family Service Unit in Leicester. This was in my early years of learning and using solution-focused practice, when an important developmental activity for me involved taking my learning from the courses I was attending at BRIEF (the organisation I was trained by) back to the agencies I worked in - first this had been a social services department, and then the Family Service Unit - and somehow fitting it in. While doing this, I often received advice that used the expression “agency constraints”. I should do such-and-such, as far as agency constraints allowed. There was a useful acknowledgement in such advice, that it was not always easy to use solution-focused practice in agency settings, which it isn’t.

Yet at the same time, as I reflected on this, I began to think it could be overdone. There were hints of working in an agency, such as a social services department or a social work charity, getting a bad rap, with an expectation that the agency would inevitably put obstacles in the way of my using the solution-focused approach. There was almost an element of: Agency - bad; me and solution-focused - good, about it. This didn’t seem very solution-focused, and this thought led me to start thinking about how working in an agency setting helped me to use solution-focused practice. It wasn’t hard for such thoughts to come. For example, it provided me with a context in which to use the approach, I had people (clients) to work with, a manager who was supportive and colleagues who were interested in what I was doing. My training career started embryonically simply from me explaining to colleagues what the solution-focused approach is.

So the exercise I opened my 1999 workshop with was very simple. I simply invited people to think and talk about the ways in which their agency supported them in their use of solution-focused practice. And what did they do that assisted their agency to support them? And if they were to notice their agency being more supportive, what might they notice? About their agency? About themselves? From agency constraints to agency support. Solution-focused and simple.

I translated this for last week’s group into this exercise, the first of two complementary exercises, each to be done with a partner:

  • One of you go first and bring to mind & talk about something you’ve been doing recently, where working with someone else - one person or a group of people - was helpful

  • The other person - ask questions to help your partner focus on both what their colleagues did that was helpful, how they knew it was helpful, and what they did themselves that helped (including, how did they make use of the other(s) and their involvement).

So that was the first of the two exercises we ended up doing, but let’s just go back in time a day or so, back to my planning of the group. This is how my thought process was developing, as I was thinking about the group session and planning it, and remembered my 1999 exercise about shifting our thinking from agency constraints to agency support. I realised then that I was having these thoughts as I was spending time on my own, planning a session that I would be running on my own.

Around the time I was in this reflective space, I picked up the latest copy of the Poetry Review journal, and almost immediately saw a poem called: “beautiful way to be alone”, by a poet called Gray Behagg. This sealed the deal! It could be supportive (as well as constraining) working in an agency, or with other people in some other context, and it could be beautiful (as well as difficult) being and doing things on your own too.

The second of the two complementary exercises started to take shape, and here is the first part of it:

  • One of you go first and bring to mind & talk about a recent occasion when you found a beautiful way to be alone (or something like that). A piece of work, activity outside of work, relaxation, anything, where you were on your own and appreciated this/found a good way to be on your own/it was useful to you

  • The other person - ask questions to help your partner focus on this occasion and on themselves -

  • What were they pleased to notice about themselves? +++ …

Before I showed the group the rest of the prompt questions the other person might ask, I shared a couple of photographs. I had taken them the day before the group, as I was planning the session, while I was sitting outside the cafe on my local park. One was the view in front of me, of the beautiful Victoria Park lake (this is in East London), and the other the cafe behind me.

These surroundings were an important part of my own beautiful way of being alone at that moment, planning the session for the next day. I then went on to share my other suggested questions:

  • …and what were they pleased to notice about about their surroundings & other aspects of the situation?

  • How did they find/create this good - beautiful - way, of being on their own?

  • & other questions perhaps, that emerge from what your partner says.

So those were the two exercises we did, which took up the first part of the group session, and that was a little bit of my process in planning them. Marc was an essential part of that process, even though he wasn’t actually there while I was in it, just as he was an essential part of the group, though he wasn’t there while we did it. He was absent but implicit, to borrow (and misuse!) an idea from narrative therapy.

And while I love working on my own, I also love working with other people, Marc very much being one of them, and I am looking forward to our working together at the next joint Solution-Focused Practice Group, on Friday 23 September, and the one after that, on Friday 25 November.

Follow the links to book your places at one or both and we will look forward to seeing you there too.

Guy Shennan

22 July 2022

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