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Your favourite exercise

What’s your favourite exercise you have done on a solution-focused (SF) training course, or on any training course? The most useful exercise, the one that has had the biggest impact?

We asked this question at our latest joint Solution-Focused Practice Group (jSFPG) meeting (we being Marc Gardiner of the Zebra Collective and I), or rather we invited the group participants to ask each other about this, in an exercise especially developed for the occasion.

A couple of things prompted me to come up with this exercise. One was a welcome meeting (at a Solution-Focused Collective event on SF and environmental issues) with a fellow participant on the first ever SF training course I attended, who interviewed me in what I have often thought of as my favourite exercise. It certainly had the biggest impact on me as I was first learning the approach. That fellow learner was Mark Allenby, now a senior lecturer in social work, who recently stood for the Green Party in the local Council elections in England, and in the exercise he helped me describe myself being at my best on the forthcoming Saturday.

It will have been in no small part due to Mark’s skill in asking me questions that I was able to describe myself in such a detailed fashion, making this so vivid that I can remember it now almost 26 years later. What I remember most though was reflecting after the interview that all the things I had described myself doing that coming Saturday were all things that I could simply choose to do. In addition, the Saturday I had described was such an enticing day. Which led me to ask myself, “Why don’t I just do those things on Saturday?!”

In the event, I had a good weekend, though my main recollection was feeling impatient for it to finish, so that I could get back to work and start putting the solution-focused approach into practice. I ran my first SF session the following Monday morning, and though it would be an over-statement to say that I was confident in my ability to do so, what I did have some confidence in was that it might be helpful to the family I was working with. And one of the main sources of that confidence was my direct experience of the approach “working” for me, via the exercise I did with Mark.

It might come as a surprise then to hear that another exercise I had done when training in the SF approach was more important to me than this one. I am wondering now why I did not think of this immediately when considering my favourite exercise, and it might be because its importance was not in relation to learning and teaching, but about something far more personal. It came to me in a rush when I was putting the finishing touches to my exercise for the joint Solution-Focused Practice Group (jSFPG), as I will now explain.

I said above that there were a couple of reasons for my coming up with this exercise, and the other is related to the jSFPG being a new offering, the form and content of which is still (and hopefully always will be) emerging, fluid and open to influence. As the purpose of the group is to support people in developing their skills, it makes sense for it to include plenty of practice exercises, and I was thinking about where the ideas for exercises would come from. As the facilitators of the group, I believe Marc and I have a responsibility for this, but I was also thinking that as all the people coming along have had some training in the approach, they are also experienced in solution-focused exercises and will have their own ideas about good ones to do.

We could simply have asked people what their favourite exercises are, but it occurred to me we could turn this into a solution-focused exercise itself, and this is what I came up with.

Your favourite exercise

Take it in turns to ask each other about an exercise you have done, as part of your solution-focused learning & development, that stands out for you, in terms of usefulness and impact.

Ask your partner -

  • About the exercise - what did it consist of?

  • About their contribution - what did they bring to the exercise - how did they do it (approach it?) - that helped it become useful to them?

  • About its impact - in what way was it useful - what difference did it make (has it made, is it making)?

As I was playing around with the wording of the exercise instructions on a slide, I came up with a neat acronym for the three groups of questions summarised in those three bullet points.

The questions in the first group are asking for a description of the exercise, the second relate to the agency of the person - their contribution to the exercise becoming useful - and the third group of questions are about the difference it made.

Description, Agency and Difference, or DAD for short.

Then it hit me like a ton of bricks.

On a training course on solution-focused supervision, in November 1999, Evan George of BRIEF invited us into a constructive histories exercise, some of the details of which I have forgotten, but it went along something like these lines. The interviewee was invited to think of some positive change they had recently made and then to trace back through time some of the qualities that had contributed to that change (a very narrative-influenced exercise, I think). A number of the questions then focused on how those qualities had arisen and/or shown themselves in certain important relationships.

I was once again fortunate in my interviewing partner, a psychiatrist whose name I have forgotten. Her questions led me to talk about my dad, and she did a great job in keeping me focused on our relationship and its connection with qualities of mine. Again, I don’t recall the specific questions, but I do recall talking very positively - very lovingly - about my dad. I also recall that after the exercise, my interviewer asked me if I had told him the things I had told her about him. I wish that I could remember her name so that I might be able to find her and, if so, thank her, profusely, for asking me that question.

I felt embarrassed to have to answer that I hadn’t, and I was also embarrassed when I realised that I had never had the idea that I might say such things to my dad. But the idea having been planted, it became something I had to do. So I wrote my dad a letter, and I told him the things I had told my fellow course participant about him. I can picture myself now, posting the letter - on London Road in Leicester, I can see the very postbox - and then staring at the postbox wondering for a second or two if it would be possible to get it back out again.

Thankfully it wasn’t, and some more moments of embarrassment lay ahead for me, when my dad phoned me a few days later, to thank me for the letter. But the embarrassment passed soon enough, as it usually does, and that conversation alone was sufficient to easily knock the Saturday At Your Best exercise off the top of the table.

So that’s my favourite exercise, what’s yours?

Guy Shennan

31 May 2021

The next joint Solution-Focused Practice Group will be on Friday 9th July, 9.30-12.30, on Zoom. More details and to book - here.

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