The solution in Solution-Focused work: Why it works… – Part 2

By Dr. Joe Isbister

Following on from my previous blog, Harnessing the power of Solution-Focused Coaching, here are some more of the ideas associated with solution-focused work. This article explores why solution-focused techniques are useful. Below are some reminders of the basic principles and a deeper look into some of the reasons why these techniques are known to be effective.

Goal Setting and Establishing a Client’s “Best Hope”

One of the first steps is for the practitioner to identify and clarify future-focused, definable goals with the client. This may be in relation to shorter-term focuses, like the hopes and expectations of a particular session, but also on longer-term goals and preferred futures in a client’s life.

Why this works…

This is based on the belief that there is always a ‘better way’ and there is always hope. The way to find this ‘better way’ is by focusing on the future, not the past. Exploring goal setting with a client helps to steer a client’s thinking towards the future. It can also help the coach to better understand a client’s frame of reference. Ultimately enhancing the questions and interactions that follow. It enables both parties to know if they are being effective as they go along. It can be a useful starting point for each session or as an anchoring point to agree to return to periodically.

The Coping and Compliment Questions

This is about noticing and amplifying previously hidden or unrecognised strengths, coping mechanisms or resiliency factors already at play. Then reflecting these words and observations back to a client in the form of a compliment or specific encouragement.

Why this works…

This technique is a natural extension of the notion that people are inherently resourceful and creative. This approach has been recognised as an important component of helping to quickly establish trust and rapport and provide an important sense that the client is being listened to.

This technique is intended to help clients recognise their own resiliency and identify some of the ways in which they already cope with problems effectively.

Exception Finding

Noticing times when some aspect of the clients’ goal was already happening to some degree. Then reflecting and building on this, as a way of moving closer towards solutions.

Why this works…

This stems from the belief that the most persistent problems will not present absolutely all of the time. There will always be some exceptions. Probing around exceptions can help change a client’s perception of a problem, helping them to view it as a more changeable entity that may not be as intractable or persistent as they have come to believe.

This can be the starting point in enabling a client to reframe their problem and in-turn provide them with a greater sense of efficacy. The initial developers of these Solution-focused techniques, Steve De Shazer and Insoo Kim Berg advocate that talking about exceptions also increases the likelihood of unearthing possible solutions, which can then be built upon.

The Miracle Question

A powerful technique which gets a client to imagine life without the problem.

Why this works…

The rationale here is to provide an opportunity for a client to be very future-focused and visionary in their thinking. It helps to free a person’s mind up and open up possibilities for helping to understand what may be possible.


Making a client quantify their state of mind and/or their aspirations. Helping to turn everything into something the client and coach can quantify into measurable goals.

Why this works…

Scaling a problem helps both parties to understand the severity of the presenting problem and what moving up the scale would look and feel life. Using this technique on a regular basis can help to give rise to the idea of ‘problems’ being changeable, it can also be used in conjunction with other techniques, such as the Miracle Question to gain a better understanding of how a client is doing, from their perspective.

The Solutions-focused mindset

Take a look at this short video which neatly describes in more detail, the core principles that form a solutions-focused mindset. It also provides some concrete examples of how the techniques outlined above can be used in practice. Although the video explains how the approach can be used in a therapeutic context, it clearly indicates how the 5 proven techniques can support many different types of conversations. This includes coaching and goal setting conversations at work.

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As you can see, the essence of good solution-focused work lies in remaining mindful of the founding principles and values that gave rise to Solutions-Focused Therapy (SFT) or Solution-Focused Brief Therapy (SFBT) as it is often called.

When this happens, the techniques outlined in this video are a natural extension of this way of thinking. Notice how implicitly these approaches convey a sense of believing in your client’s capacities. This then inherently improves the quality of interactions that are made possible together and new solutions can potentially emerge. Using something as simple as a scaling exercise can have the power to change the whole narrative around an issue.

Notice too, how solution-focused tools and techniques are often used in combination to complement one another and to gain maximum effect. The example in this short film focuses on a married couple. Of course this is just one example. There is no reason why these tried and tested approaches could not be applied to an array of other challenges and different situations.

Why not experiment and do more of what works?

If you can see potential in this approach and it resonates with you, why not experiment more with it? Get it into the muscles of your practice and do more of what works – more often!