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Chair's Blog: Building bridges, from individual to collective action, through solution-focused practice

Solution-focused practice has strong connections with social work, and it is the approach I have specialised in for a large part of my working life, so I am delighted that my latest joint blog post is with fellow solution-focused practitioner, Suzi Curtis, who is a clinical psychologist. With her colleague, Steve Flatt, Suzi is hosting this year's UK Association of Solution-Focused Practice conference in Liverpool on 14th-15th June.

Building bridges, from individual to collective action, through solution-focused practice

This year's UK Association of Solution-Focused Practice (UKASFP) conference is about Building Bridges, between the solution-focused approach and other fields and areas of work. Two fields where the approach is used are clinical psychology and social work, our respective professions, and the approach has created a bridge between the two of us. Another bridge has been our common interest in shifting the focus of our work from private troubles to public issues (to use the distinction C. B. Wright Mills developed in The Sociological Imagination).

The critical psychologist, David Smail, elaborated on this distinction in 2005:

 “What we need is a psychology that switches its attention from a metaphorical ‘inner world’ to try instead to elaborate the ways in which powerful influences in the external environment of social space-time serve to liberate or enslave us, as well as to shape our consciousness of ourselves”  (Smail, 2005, p78)

Since these words were written, the ideas they express have shifted progressively from the ‘fringe’ into the mainstream of clinical psychology and related disciplines. This has recently been illustrated by the inclusion of a keynote presentation entitled “A call to action for Educational Psychologists: Social justice, ‘austerity’ and well-being”, at the annual conference of the Division of Educational and Child Psychologists in January 2018. This presentation, by Laura Winter, included a description of research into the impact of the bedroom tax on families and children and concluded that the “mental health crisis” often referred to in the media and by politicians and social commentators, is “not within the minds of our children, it is within our society, and this is where action is needed”.

We fully agree, and it is encouraging to see such action growing within the social work and psychology professions. Since the 2004 publication of Social work and social justice: a manifesto for a new engaged practice, the Social Work Action Network (SWAN) has emphasised the need for social action and contributed to a rebirth of radical social work. Building on the work of the radical psychologists of the 1960s and 70s, a critical psychology has been increasingly visible since the 1990s (see, for example, Fox, Prilleltensky and Austin, 2009). The group, Psychologists Against Austerity, formed prior to the 2015 General Election and have since expanded their activities as Psychologists for Social Change. They have worked closely with both SWAN and BASW, and were among the inspirations for BASW’s Boot Out Austerity campaign. They are proving to be an influential force within the psychology profession too, as can be seen by the reference made to them by Peter Kinderman, in his farewell letter as outgoing President of the British Psychological Society last year. Peter ended his letter with the ringing statement that "Psychology is a discipline whose time has come, as a force for social change".

Still, the individualising forces which permeate their respective histories remain strong within both our professions. In its earliest days, social work involved campaigning and reforming as much as it did ‘casework’ (as it came to be known) with individuals and families, but the latter came to increasingly predominate during the twentieth century. It might have reached its apogee in this neoliberal era, when, for example, children are seen to be at risk from the actions of individual parents rather than from any societal neglect. And not withstanding the psychologist campaigning mentioned above, which tends to take place outside work hours, most clinical psychology jobs and services too have a narrow, individualised focus.

So developing forms of collective action within mainstream psychology and social work practice is not going to be an easy task, and might require a complete re-visioning of our roles to ensure that action at a societal level becomes accepted as an integral part of them, so that social justice and social change agendas are built into our training and job descriptions. In the meantime, given that work with individuals and families remains the main vehicle for our change efforts, we should take steps to ensure that this work, at the very least, is not part of the problem and, at best, is genuinely part of the solution.

As solution-focused practitioners we believe that the solution-focused approach has much to offer these considerations. We also know that colleagues, within our own and other helping professions, are using other approaches that incorporate a social justice and social change agenda in their work. We are keen to engage with them, to explore synergies, common ground and complementarity in our work and thinking. Accordingly, this year’s annual UKASFP conference will include a workshop stream and panel discussion on Solution Focused Practice and Social Change, with a range of participants whose work touches on social justice issues, using both solution-focused and other approaches. As well as learning ways to incorporate a social change agenda into our work from those outside the solution-focused world, we hope they will see that solution-focused practice has something to offer in its turn.

One idea we want to explore is that solution-focused practice offers a way of working that avoids reinforcing power imbalances and negative identities, or saddling individuals whose predicament is the result of forces outside their control with the responsibility for effecting their own ‘recovery’ through an act of personal willpower. Rather than ‘getting service users to take responsibility’ for their predicaments, solution-focused practice allows people to explore and discover possibilities that are right for them. This begins with the simple - and we believe radical - act of asking people what they hope for from their involvement with services, which is accompanied by accepting their hopes as legitimate and viewing the job of the practitioner as helping service users to talk in ways likely to help them move closer to the lives they want.

This job includes inviting i) descriptions of ‘preferred futures’ - how life would be if their hopes have been realised; ii) explorations of aspects of these futures that are already happening, and iii) the identification of those resources that have helped bring these about.  At no stage does the practitioner offer an explanation for the service user’s current difficulties, a proposed course of action they should take, or a normative view of how they should be thinking, feeling, behaving or living. An implicit assumption underlying the approach is that the service user has good reasons for being in the predicament they find themselves in and that they have done and are still doing the best they can.

We believe this fits well with Smail’s description of the business of change as being “a down-to-earth matter of what powers are available to the person to make a difference” (Smail, 2005, p84). Being very much about concrete descriptions of how the individual acts and interacts within the material conditions of their world, this approach also fits with Smail’s call for a psychology that “switches its attention away from a metaphorical ‘inner world’” (Smail, 2005, p78). Solution-focused practitioners work without using theories or formulations relating to such a world.

The idea that “the language for solution development is different from that needed to describe a problem” (de Shazer et al, 2007), so that exploring the causes of problems is considered unnecessary, is another radical feature of solution-focused practice and one that might be at odds with mainstream social work and ideas from critical psychology. The latter include the recently published ‘Power Threat Meaning Framework’, which suggests the importance of assisting service users in drawing up a formulation of their difficulties that locates their causes within societal factors, unequal power relations and material conditions, to avoid harmful narratives of self-blame. It will be interesting to explore this area of difference and we wonder whether this kind of ‘problem talk’ (as a solution-focused practitioner might term it) might be less antithetical to solution-focused practice than the kind that focuses on internal factors such as ‘maladaptive schemas’ or ‘negative automatic thoughts’, or individualised notions of poor parenting, for example.

It might be that the very process of describing a preferred future that is located within the material conditions of a person’s current situation - as we help people do in solution focused practice - already enables service users to recognise those aspects of their lives where it is difficult if not impossible to exert influence as an individual and which call for a more collective form of action. Using a groupwork approach with people who face similar material difficulties might highlight the need for collective action by groups of marginalised or disadvantaged individuals. One of our colleagues who works in a solution-focused way with women affected by domestic violence has recently observed such a phenomenon. 

This observation fits with two pieces of wisdom, one from the world of solution-focused practice in organisations and the other from critical psychology: First, Jackson and McKergow (2006; p201) say that “one of the implications of the interactional view on which the Solutions Focus is based is that change can be started from anywhere: top or bottom, inside or outside – and then spreads like ripples around the organisation and its environment”. Second, Prilleltensky (2003, p197) states that “achievements at one level of well-being energise people to pursue the same at other levels“.

This returns us to the question of what action we are able to take, as professionals, at the societal level and suggests that we might already, indirectly, be doing this, when we work with service users in ways that enable them to take such actions themselves.  

So we look forward to the conference and to the opportunities it will provide - to share ideas about what's already working with regard to using solution-focused practice to promote social change, and to consider how this might develop further. Our solution-focused ideas about change suggest to us that talking about these existing and future developments is likely to lead to more progress in this direction, and also that some of the developments to come will be novel and unexpected. Exciting times ahead!

Suzi Curtis and Guy Shennan


de Shazer, S., Dolan, Y.M., Korman, H., Trepper, T.S., McCollum, E.E., and Berg, I.K. (2007), More Than Miracles: The state of the art of solution-focused brief therapy. New York: Haworth Press.

Fox, D., Prilleltensky, I. and Austin, S. (Eds) (2009). Critical Psychology: An introduction (2nd edition). London: Sage.

Jackson. P. Z. and McKergow, M (2006). The Solutions Focus: Making coaching and change SIMPLE (2nd edition). London: Nicholas Brealey Publishing.

Prilleltensky, I. (2003). Understanding and overcoming oppression: Towards psychopolitical validity, American Journal of Community Psychology, 31, 195-202.

Smail, D. (2005). Power, Interest and Psychology: Elements of a social materialist understanding of distress. Ross- on-Wye: PCCS Books.

Wright Mills, C. (1959). The Sociological Imagination. Oxford: Oxford University Press.


Colin Slasberg on 08/05/2018 10:21:47

I suspect many social workers in mainstream local authority roles will read this essay and think ‘…if only’. They will read how solution focussed ‘begins with the simple - and we believe radical - act of asking people what they hope for from their involvement with services’. They will agree that’s right, and indeed, they might even recall its what the glossy brochures about personalisation say was supposed to happen. But they will say how can we work this way knowing the resulting information will cut no ice as it goes through the resource allocation machinery. And they will wonder how can we embark on such a conversation with the service user when we work in a system that relegates any ‘need’ that is not eligible to be a mere wish, thus trashing people’s actual hopes in the process. But I would urge social workers to believe change is possible. Peter Beresford and I set out how this can be achieved in last May’s PSW. Debates are beginning within BASW. Our Chief Executive has written an excellent article in this months PSW urging social workers to take strength from our Code of Ethics to fight policies that are hostile to fellow citizens. I urge social workers to be inspired by this excellent essay from Guy and Suzi, and to engage in the search for the changes in the environment within which social care is delivered so that the type of skilled practice Guy and Suzi describe is not just possible, but is a positive requirement.

Guy Shennan on 10/05/2018 11:26:30

Thanks for responding, Colin! If only indeed. Your response directs us to the limitations of solution-focused practice as well as to the limitations of working in mainstream local authority roles - but I should be putting "current" in front of "limitations" in both places there. According to solution-focused precepts, borrowed from Buddhist ones, not only is change possible, but it is inevitable, so, in the words of Sam Cooke, "A Change is Gonna Come"!