Sharing and building Solution Focused practice in organisations

When I call something complex, what does that mean?

Let us assume that me calling something complex is expressing a point of view. Which point of view is that?
Perhaps this: "in order for me to understand this (or to feel like I am on top of these things) I would need multiple point of views, most likely more than the ones I am aware of now".

Take for instance the way the climate works. I would call it simple if I feel I can somehow oversee the system, by either having a broad image, or by being able to explain every single event presented to me and predict its successor.

I call it complex because I am well aware that, although I might know something about the basics of the weather, there are much more influences at work that make up the meaning of a certain event in the light of its coming to being and its next state.

Why don't I call everything complex? Maybe I should.

You can wonder, what good does it to call things either complex or simple? By saying that we want others (including ourselves) to acknowledge a certain difference because somehow we think noticing the difference would make us act differently.

What differences would we like others to notice by having them acknowledge something either as complex or simple, or even both? And what kind of advantages would that have?

In our work as solution focused coaches, the complexity story is an invitation for people to start believing that if they want to invite change to alter their current situation, it might be a good idea to assume that there is something which they cannot understand. In a sense we affirm something they already know, because most of them came to us because they don't know what to do in the first place. And those who don't come to us by themselves, know for sure that what they are doing hasn't altered their situation so far (at least not in the way they wanted it).

When saying something is complex, we invite them to explore other points of view. We present several of them, and we make clients aware of the different points of view they are already having themselves. 
  • We do so by giving compliments about what they have done or said.
  • We resonate their wordings so they can listen to themselves 'from the outside', without having to make these words up as they speak.
  • We invite them to go to the future and notice what is different.
  • We invite them to think about 'how others will notice the difference'.
  • We invite them to use scales to see differences in between good and bad, to notice exceptions.
  • We invite them to see progress as 'what would be a next small step in the desired direction'.
  • We invite them to look for something to start with instead of looking for how to complete the whole mission at once.
  • We invite them to look at a person being 'good' or 'bad' and see how it really are actions which hurt us or which we benefit from, limited in time and space.
  • We point out the difference between problems (which can be fixed) and limitations (which can be accepted and which you can learn to live with).
  • ...
We also invite new points of view by introducing simplicity.
  • We invite them to notice what is working and does not have to change.
  • We invite them to notice what works well and how they can do more of this.
  • We invite them to notice what does not work and invite them to do something else instead.
  • And we allow them to see small steps as a useful way of starting their journey instead of looking for giant leaps (or shortcuts).
  • ...
You might say we help our clients to get a better understanding of their situation. But do we really?

You could say that coaching is more about raising awareness of our inter standing than about our under standing of our lives. We do not assume that in order to be happier you should aspire to get on top of all things and remain on top of them for the rest of your life. We do not embark on missions to find all encompassing explanations either. We simply invite you that being 'in between' things means that you are already on top of things (and always will be) and that there will always be things that you cannot be on top of.

When I say this I start from the assumption that we will always be 'on the road', or in between. The latin verb for this is 'inter-esse', from which we have derived the word interesting. Since it is so common for us to be in between, I guess we left out the 'in between', for being too redundant. Just like you would not add to every person you meet that you were human. It shows. Or at least we think it does.

In our work we notice that it pays off to 'show it again', to allow people to discover what it means to be interesting (which is kind of a tautology in itself), to be part of an interesting life. Some clients tell us that elements of their environment are 'interesting again', that some parts of their lives are interesting again, and that some options they have right now are also interesting. These parts may or may not have changed. What has changed is the way they look at their lives and their world.

My question was how it could be useful for others to point out the difference between complex (needs more viewpoints than you and I can hold) and simple (I see!). An more interesting answer than whatever I can offer you could be another question, namely "what works for you?". The more I work with clients, as well as with the notions of complexity and simplicity, the more I have come to believe that it does not matter where you come from or where you want to go with your life. It matters where you are right now, it matters what you meet right now, and most of all, it matters what you do with it, right now.
Escaping the in-betweenness in exchange for some more understanding and control, I do not buy that. What I do buy is that every single day we get thousands of opportunities to notice things and to do something with them that makes us feel satisfied about what we have done with them. Whether it is about the air we breath, the food we eat, the people we talk to, the jobs we engage in, the routes we take, the thoughts we have and so on.

Maybe complexity and simplicity are just what they are: a way to make people notice what is here, to notice that in the wake of a complete understanding they might as well try to do the best they can in helping themselves and others and be proud about it.

A small anecdote to end this piece. On the last Solworld Conference I was listening to Mark McKergow talking about his new concept of rutenso ('working with constant change') and how it was linked to the world of Solution Focused Coaching and change within organizations. Mark was still developing the concept at that time. So in a way of challenging him I asked him how he would notice he would be on the right track. I cannot recall what Mark answered at that time, but I do know I felt dissatisfied with what he had said. Probably because Mark's map did not fit the map I was having of reality and I was disappointed that he we could not engage in enriching our maps further.

As it happened, Nora Bateson, Gregory Bateson's youngest daughter, was sitting next to me. And intuitively she had understood my frustration. She somehow knew what I was missing in Mark's story. She smiled and whispered that we had to meet up after the session to talk. For the rest of the session all I could think about was "What is she going to tell me?" When the session was over and we finally met at a coffee buffet, she looked me straight in the eyes and said: "never loose your curiosity and your willingness to look further".

These words kind of set me free. In a glimpse I saw that Mark's current map kept him moving (he was enthusiastic, he was inspiring others in his quest), it made his life (as well as that of many others) interesting. Who was I to presume that my map was more interesting than his?
I felt liberated, since in a way Nora had made Mark's story - as well as the stories of every one else - interesting.
Looking back upon what happened that day, I think I was invited to explore the question "what works for you?" even more than I was doing. And when engaging with clients it may turn out to be a good point to start there and stay there.

Somewhere in between. 
I wish to credit and thank Michael Hjerth for introducing me to the notion of interestingness at a conference about the therapeutic alliance, last year in Bruges.


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Comment by Hannes Couvreur on November 25, 2011 at 18:36

Wow Tom,

So happy this made your return a nice welcome back. Thank you for your enthusing words. How has your journey 'away' from the SF community been?


Keep in touch,



Comment by Tom Chancellor on November 25, 2011 at 17:25

Hannes, I've just rejoined the SF community after about a decade away. Your post is a terrifice "welcome back". Thoughtful and reflective while remaining clear and unburdened of excess baggage. It reminds be somewhat of Buber's "I and thou". Thank you for sharing your ideas.




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