What is the approach you use in coaching (the theoretical model, its premises/underlying beliefs or reasons for being developed etc)?
Having studied and experimented with a variety of models for understanding and helping people with their problems, I’ve settled with the solution-focused (SF) approach. Although there seem to be as many descriptions of SF practice as there are people using it, there are some common themes that stand out for me: for example, the skilled use of questions as gateways for people to think differently; and the idea that people are the experts on their own lives and remain competent, skilled and resourceful even when seeking help for their problems. Questions that focus on these competences not only amplify what they are already doing that is helpful, but also clarify how they want their future to be and the extent to which this future has already begun.
Why were you drawn to this approach/model and how did you go about becoming skilled/qualified in it?
It was love at first workshop! I’d studied various models during my training in mental health nursing, and all had their various merits. I was keen to roll up my sleeves and get stuck in with the job of helping people. It wasn’t long before the kudos of being cast in the role of ‘expert’ became a burden to me – a very heavy one. A plethora of job titles prefaced with words like ‘specialist’ or ‘consultant’ didn’t really help things. People wanted answers, and those answers were supposed to come from me. Along with all this came the uncomfortable implication that the people who I was helping were somehow ‘faulty’ ,‘wrong’, ‘dysfunctional’ or worse still, ‘damaged’. I needed a different lens through which I could view things. Courses at BRIEF (Centre for Solution-Focused Practice) got the ball rolling, and then it was practice, practice and more practice. In 2009, I was introduced to solution-focused groupwork by Professor John Sharry at Parents Plus, and my feet haven’t touched the ground since.
Do you work with a particular client group, and how do your clients benefit from the fact that you take this particular approach to coaching?
Although I’ve used the SF approach in a variety of clinical, supervisory and learning contexts, my main interest these days is in offering solution-focused conversations to people who are feeling overwhelmed by the climate emergency. They might be climate activists who are experiencing burnout, parents who are terrified for their children’s future and their own, or a whole range of other people whose day-to-day life is being seriously, negatively impacted by what they have learned about our situation, and what they see as inadequate responses to it.
Benefits from this approach to coaching seem to start immediately, from the beginning of the conversation, with the classic SF ‘What are your best hopes?’ question. I’m guessing that having any hope at all for anything has long since disappeared from their worldview, so asking people for their best hopes from the conversation between us gently introduces the notion of some form of optimism. I know from personal experience that being consumed by fear, as the full extent of our predicament unfolds, can be a harrowing experience. Having said that, it is still possible, somehow, to get out of bed and engage with life on its current terms. I use a variety of coping questions to invite people to consider what keeps them going when everything seems so bleak.
I hear a variety of extraordinarily inspiring responses from them that seem to boil down to a real desire to do something constructive with what’s left of their lives, to be there for their children and loved ones, to keep going regardless, to try to cushion the blow as the climate deteriorates. The single most powerful notion that the SF approach seems to offer in these circumstances is that of ‘not knowing’, specifically with reference to the future. This gives me the space to ask questions about the small details of people’s lives for which they might be grateful, proud and pleasantly surprised, which appears to expand their capacity for a little more optimism.
Of course, the very ideas of ‘hope’ and ‘optimism’ have come in for some heavy criticism in some environmental circles. The analogy I tend to draw is that the nature of ‘hope’ (so central in SF practice) for a person diagnosed with an incurable terminal illness is arguably very different from its use in many other contexts of suffering. Speaking as a health professional, if our biosphere were to be a patient, they might need an army of medical specialists and nurses and an array of bleeping machines to address their calamitous state. Here again, asking questions about who is doing what that might be helpful – locally, nationally, internationally – invites people to review their ‘all hope is lost’ conclusions, which leads neatly on to questions about some sort of preferred future.
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In climate circles, thinking about the future seems to be one of the factors driving many people’s distress. So, I have two observations: (a) the future doesn’t exist – the only real live action is happening right now in this moment; and (b) asking detailed questions about an imagined preferred future, drawn from what the person has said in our conversation so far, offers an opportunity for them to reconstruct their view of a possible future.
What do you most love about being this kind of coach? Have you experienced this kind of coaching in your life and how does it resource you as a practitioner?
Everything… where do I start? The SF approach changed how I experienced my clinical practice, and SF coaching was certainly a key element in me finding my feet as I confronted the complex realities of our climate emergency. It remains a bit of a mission for me to see what the approach can bring to the table as worries about our future gather pace. I’m currently developing a solution-focused climate café with some friends. It will aim to provide a space for people to share their feelings, acknowledge their gratitude for the work that people are already doing, and then imagine preferred futures where, somehow, we are able to make the deep and fundamental changes that are needed for us to pull through in the long term and for our great-grandchildren to build afresh.
Could you share a tool or framework or aspect of this approach that other coaches might use or draw on now in their work with clients?
‘Imagine it’s around 300 years from now, and whoever’s here on the planet is alive, surviving and beginning to work towards a better future. By now, you’re an ancestor from those ‘bad old days back then’. What stories do you want your future descendants to be telling about your responses to what’s happening now? What would you like your descendants to be grateful to you for doing now?’
If people are interested in finding out more, what can they read or where could they explore it through CPD or fully train in it?
Here’s a blog that I wrote for the Solution Focused Collective:
Here’s an article that I wrote for the Irish Times:
For more information on SF training and practice please visit:
BRIEF: The Centre for Solution Focused Practice