Cover of Interviewing for Solutions (2nd edition)
I’ve been learning lots on my three month career counsellor exchange, here in California. Here at UC Berkeley, the majority of career counsellors have a two-year MSc in Counseling (usually with a concentration in careers work), which means that I’m learning so much from colleagues that have a much broader toolkit to draw on.

One approach recommended to me by my supervisor, Sarah Backes-Diaz (who’s also a Master Career Counselor) has been particularly useful: solution-focused counseling, which I’ve been learning about via a great text – Interviewing for Solutions

Features of solution-focused counseling

1) Much less of a focus on diagnosing the ’cause’ of any issues.  This is not about us as lofty ‘professionals’ applying scientific expertise, but treats the client as the expert about their own life (which appeals to me following my reading about non-hierarchical reflective practice, as well as new directions for careers work following Phil McCash’s concept that ‘we’re all career researchers now’)

2) Active listening taken a stage further by suspending our habit of listening and evaluating simultaneously.  This is maintaining ‘a position of not knowing’ – relying only on the client’s perceptions and explanations to determine the significance of the client’s experience and actions.  I feel that reading about this (Anderson and Goolishan have more) has been a really valuable leap forward in my practice.

3) Concomitant behavior:

a) resisting the urge to introduce terminology – keeping the ‘client as expert’ by using their language when summarising or asking further questions.
b) using silence more – acknowledging the clients’ capacity, rather than presuming that we ‘know’ what will keep the session on track
c) complimenting to amplify strengths and qualities that have been useful to a client
d) affirming client perceptions – allowing that ‘not knowing’ and ‘client as expert’ to presume that the client has good reason to perceive things the way they do, rather than deconstructing a ‘problem’

4) ‘Solution talk’ – using these ‘client as expert’ and ‘not knowing’ creates an environment where we can move away from a ‘problem-focus’, full of our diagnosis, to focus on what’s going right (‘exceptions’) which builds ‘solution-talk’. At the lowest level, this is the complimenting that we’ve seen above, but to develop well-formed goals, a common technique is to use The Miracle Question.

‘The Miracle Question’

Now, I want to ask you a strange question. Suppose that while you are sleeping tonight and the entire house is quiet, a miracle happens. The miracle is that the problem which brought you here is solved. However, because you are sleeping, you don’t know that the miracle has happened. So, when you wake up tomorrow morning, what will be different that will tell you that a miracle has happened and the problem which brought you here is solved? (de Shazer, Clues: Investigating solutions in brief therapy, 1988, p.5)

I was a little hesitant about using this question, but reading Interview for Solutions and the transcripts of cases (in a diverse range of settings from family therapy to alcohol abuse) convinced me that with pre-warning of a ‘strange question’, a slowing of pace, and repetition of the concept ‘the miracle happens and the problem that brought you here is solved’ the results could be positive – the majority of engaged clients creating for themselves a vivid ‘miracle picture’.  This can be developed into a well-formed goal by the counselor asking ‘not knowing’ questions, questions that ask for details, clarity, agree that it is a hard question and leave silence for thought.

By starting a the beginning of a day, it allows clients to imagine their way through their ‘miracle picture’ stage by stage – from the setting around them when they wake up, and gradually what their morning entails, all the way through to their feelings at the end of the day.  This has been really amazing to hear clients’ miracle pictures (often much more well-formed and detailed than expected) – although I’d advise reading a copy of Interviewing for Solutions first, as that gave me the confidence to persist with what felt initially like an awkward question to ask, as well as lots more nuance and detail around its use.

Now we have a well-formed goal, which the client build for themselves – creating hope, confidence, self-belief (0-10 scaling questions are suggested for use at the end of this session to allow the client to tell us more about this). To make the move towards it, we need to find exceptions, which can be prompted by asking “whether there’s ever times when little bits of this miracle picture happen, even now?” or “what elements of that miracle picture do you think you could put in place now?”.  Listening out for and exploring exceptions (keep ‘not knowing’ how they happen) is the key to helping clients to see what’s working, and feel that they’re on their way to a solution, as well as beginning to allow the clients to decide what they’re going to do next (more of what’s working).

‘EARS’ activities

Later sessions center around the initial question ‘What’s better?’ – leading to what they call ‘EARS’ activities: eliciting the exception, amplifying it (what makes this different? how did it happen?), reinforcing it (complimenting and exploring) and starting again with another ‘what else is better?’.  I’ve had a couple of follow-up appointments, and this guided approach works well – strangely, even with clients for whom things have even taken a step back (the exceptions often then begin with elements of resilience, their response to the step back etc.).

My experience

I’ve been really blown away by how useful this approach is with clients who are really finding the process of figuring out what to do next or ‘sorting their life out’ (their language) really tough. I’ve been amazed out how the miracle picture has worked, and how clients begin to shift from focusing on the problems into building the path to a well-formed goal. I’ll keep an eye out for an opportunity to ask a student to let me share an anonymized transcript to show how applicable this process is to career guidance – but, just from reading Interviewing for Solutions the transferability of the technique was clear.  Two things I’ve found useful:

  • Gaining client permission – this is really outside of what I would guess is most client’s perceptions of a careers appointment and so I tend to ask ‘I wonder if you’d be ok if I asked a question that might seem a little unusual’?
  • This technique actually seems to work  well over the phone – I wonder if it’s because we’re not often used to having to use our imagination when we’re in the company of someone else, and so the isolation of a telephone appointment actually seems to support this a little more. I think it actually helps the ‘not knowing’ stance for the counselor too given that we have so few visual signals to work on.

That’s a really brief overview! I’d really recommending buying one of the second-hand copies online and having a proper read through the cases.

It makes me wonder too – what other great techniques from elsewhere in the helping professions could be adapted for use with careers work?