Sharing and building Solution Focused practice in organisations

Notes from a discussion led by Paul Z Jackson and Joost van Iersel, at SOL Summer Retreat, Fontana Passug August 2012

We say that good Solution Focus practitioners 'stay on the surface'. And we treat this as a good thing. What do we mean by staying on the surface?

If we read we Bateson and Dilts (to pick but two), we get tempted to talk about ‘identity’ and other mentalistic, psychological and other concepts. If we don't need such concepts in our account of the world, then we can stay at the surface in the sense of dealing with what is there - the evidence of our eyes and ears.

The mistake is not reading such writers but believing in them. It clutters our space if we turn these concepts into things that we then need to take into account.

If there’s a surface, we are linguistically committed to the possibilities of there being an above and a below. Marco Matera suggests we can stay at the surface while using such tools as a fisherman’s bait and hook. If we are fishing for resources that are below the surface, we might use a question such as 'what else?' as the bait to bring more to the top.

Eileen McCabe wonders what happens if we change the metaphor with a 90-degree rotation, transforming our image into something more like a mirror, with a behind and an in front. There's less prospect then of being seduced by the idea of deeper being more valuable.

Janine Waldman says that working on the surface means trusting that we need work only with what the client is offering. We can proceed with maximum direct effect if we make the assumption that that is all there is. What people choose to share with us is the most important thing to have the conversation about.

We have all noticed that by working in an SF 'surface way' with what people bring, we hear that our clients get what they sometimes describe as profound insights into what they might call their identity or whatever frames they are accustomed to. SF gives people space to operate in their own paradigm. SF doesn’t impose a way of thinking on people, we ask questions about what's wanted and about what might be useful, and that allows them their own way to think.

If all definitions and labels are constructs, there is merit in respecting (by using and by not arguing with ) the perspective, language and metaphors of clients. We can take care to maintain an element of not-knowing and not-imposing, by resisting the temptation to introduce anything they aren’t talking about. Respect consists in assuming that clients are experts in their lives; we are not.

When we speak about our work, for example to potential clients, it may be that talking about 'staying at the surface' is not such a great idea.

We may suppose that clients are seeking, for example, to change behaviour in a durable way. And this is at first glance unlikely to occur if we stay at the surface - such an approach is clearly 'superficial', particular if contrasted with those that promise to dig deep. That's proper work. The darkest hour is before the dawn. Medicine must taste bad to be efficacious. No pain, no gain. So what's the use of a lightweight approach which doesn't set out to make the client suffer?

The best answer to the question of durable change is to look at the results. The research consistently shows that SF (especially in the more studies fields, such as therapy: and also in coaching) provides as good and as lasting results as any other methodology (or better). It also tends to be more brief, and more pleasant (for client and for therapist).

We note that we also work explicitly and deliberately to create and support sustainable change – by focusing on improvements and progress, asking clients how they can maintain what’s better; and when it's not so good, how they are coping.

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Comment by Tim Theeboom on October 7, 2011 at 8:52

@ Shakya (and all others who are interested)


Here are 2 references for research on the SF approach: 


Green, L. S., Grant, A. M., & Rynsaardt, J. (2007). Evidencebased

Green, L. S., Grant, A. M., & Rynsaardt, J. (2007). Evidencebased

life coaching for senior high school students: Building

hardiness and hope. International Coaching Psychology Review,

2, 24 – 32.


Green, L. S., Oades, L. G., & Grant, A. M. (2006). Cognitivebehavioural,

solution-focused life coaching: Enhancing goal

striving, well-being and hope. Journal of Positive Psychology, 1,

142 – 149.


kind regards, 



Comment by Shakya on September 7, 2011 at 9:49
Thanks Paul (and everyone else in the conversation).  I'm pleased to read reference to "The research ... also in coaching" - does anyone have specific details/references?
Comment by Liselotte Baeijaert on August 26, 2011 at 15:21

Thank you Paolo for your further thoughts about staying at the surface

It really makes sense to me that "staying at the surface" means that you don't ADD mental constructs to what the client brings in. And I was wondering about the other way round: IF the client brings in mental constructs, certain beliefs about himself (I am such and such a person) I have the experience that it can be useful to invite the client to tell more about it, touching the surface gently,  (what is it that you do than, what is it that happens,...)  explore exceptions, ... not because you want to "know" but because you often purify or help changing the 'story' and the mental constructs that the client has built around him/herself. I am curious about any further thoughts. 

Comment by Katalin Hankovszky on August 22, 2011 at 8:25

"Of course, eliminating anything hypothetical and all explanation means that therapists must work hard to simply stay on the surface of the conversation. All that is left is the conversation itself - listening and talking - and the description of the conversation looking into the working og our language."

Steve de Shazer on not creating 'theory' out of observed moments, in: More Than Miracles by Steve de Shazer, Yvonne Dolan et al., Taylor & Francis 2007 p.106

Comment by lieve picard on August 21, 2011 at 21:36
tnx paul, It will help me ... 
Comment by Bert Garssen on August 21, 2011 at 20:41

Thanks Paul, It wll help me in some conversation with (potential) clients


Comment by Sue Lickorish on August 21, 2011 at 13:47
Thanks Paul, that's a useful summarising of our conversation.




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