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Sharing and building Solution Focused practice in organisations

The primary question to ask your clients - and how and when to ask it

If you are ever lucky enough to be handed one of my business cards, as well as my pretty face on it you’ll see a question:  it asks, ‘What do you want?’ 

It does so because this is a central question in any solution-focused (SF) conversation.  As a question it may seem an obvious one to ask in many contexts – it is difficult, for example, to imagine getting very far as an organisational consultant or as a coach without it.  

But in other settings, such as medicine, that’s not the case.  There the crucial question is ‘What’s wrong with you?’, in which your answer is expected to lead to a diagnosis and then treatment.  You’re probably not
even asked if you want diagnosis and treatment – it’s more of a given, an almost unquestioned assumption.

When I was discussing this issue with the London group of solution-focused practitioners, including a few speech therapists, they described themselves dealing with a range of clients; from acute settings, such
as immediately after a trauma – for example a stroke that had resulted in language loss – to more chronic clients, such as those with learning disabilities.  The more acute, the more they tended to the medical
model:  they might introduce themselves, telling the patient what they hoped to be doing, describing their role, and inviting comments.  The tone would be friendly, professional, perhaps even useful - but not particularly SF because they were not asking people what they wanted.

One stroke patient who was at our meeting said he had never been asked what he wanted by a medical practitioner, and would love to be asked it.  He told us he worked in branding – where he routinely asks what his client want and why they want it.  It was only when he met an SF speech therapist that he was able to choose the recovery goals that meant the most to him.

In SF the answer to ‘What do you want?’ forms the platform or basis of ‘the solution’, the desired state of affairs.  So it must be addressed somehow.  And of course there are various ways of asking and various
moments at which to ask.  

Popular forms of the question include:

  • What do you want?
  • What would you like to have happen?
  • What’s prompted you to make the effort to come?
  • At the end of this meeting what would be the best outcome for you?What are your best hopes – of what will happen here today/ of the programme?

Less solutions-focused (in this sense) are:

  • How can I help?
  • What do you think is going to happen here? (Though that may be a worthwhile prelude).
  • What’s wrong? 

Sometimes practitioners are reluctant to ask, because they suspect that they won’t be able to deliver what’s wanted, that they may be raising false hope.  Well, unless you are the expert in people’s lives, it is not your
responsibility to deliver.  The aim is to be professional and as useful as possible – not to promise that everyone will get exactly what they want. 

Asking your client about ‘the first signs of them getting what they want’ may relieve that pressure: the answers may be more in your gift and smack less of unattainability. 

Because many people are not used to being asked what they want, one tip is to ask it and then keep quiet if you don’t get an immediate answer. Allow thinking time.  You may even need to ask again later in the
conversation.  It can help to think of ‘What does my client want?’ as the topic of this part of the conversation, so that you can approach the topic in a variety of ways until all parties are clear about the answer.

In organisational consulting contexts, for example, we use ‘What do you want?’ as a means of getting to a range of choices for our clients. They may want lots of things, from which they can prioritise the most important or most urgent.

When we hear what someone wants, we often repeat what they say in order to check for clarity, allowing for adjustments, refinements and further ideas.  It also shows we are listening accurately, then working to the
same ends.  We may check by restating to the client, “What you want is…”  That’s especially useful when we meet people who find it easier to list for us what they don’t want.  They may be more familiar with the
unwanted elements that are present here and now.  Our task then is to find out what they might want instead.

While it is possible to start a conversation by asking, ‘What do you want?’, timing is important, and it can be more effective to ask once you know what topics are on people’s minds.  Then you will be asking it in
relation to a specified issue, not in isolation.  That allows useful discussion about the difference that getting what’s wanted will make.

We can ask ‘What do you want to be different?’ or ‘What do you want to be better?’  As well as giving us a more accurate sense of direction, answers to these questions mean we can now also check for the benefits of such differences for the clients, and ensure that any efforts are going to be worthwhile.

Another consideration about when to ask what’s wanted hinges on clients’ attitudes.  Insoo Kim Berg, one of the pioneers of SF thinking, used to say, ‘Meet people in their resources’.   She would often find out about some strengths and successes of her clients before she asked them what they wanted.  You’ll get different answers, depending on how optimistic or pessimistic your clients are feeling.  

This shows that the answer to ‘What do you want?’ is not fixed.  You could even say it is negotiated within each conversation.  In a typical solution-focused (SF) second session, we review progress in the light of what was wanted.  Then once we have reviewed what’s better, we’re ready with our question again, wondering what else you want.  ‘Given what’s been happening, now what do you want?’

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