Solution-focused techniques are a transformative approach in therapy and coaching. It emphasizes the client’s potential and resources for change. Instead of focusing on problems, these techniques prioritize the desired future and the steps to achieve it. The goal is to foster a solution-focused mindset and promote resilience, optimism, and self-efficacy.
This guide will explore 14 techniques commonly used in solution-focused therapy and coaching. It will include practical applications and examples.
Solution-focused techniques are effective, but they’re not a one-size-fits-all solution. Take into account each client’s unique needs. Seek professional guidance and tailor techniques accordingly. Exercise caution when working with individuals who have experienced severe trauma. Prioritize their well-being and readiness for solution-focused work. Seek professional supervision when working with this client group.
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Problem-Free Talk is a technique in solution-focused therapy that involves steering the conversation toward topics unrelated to the client’s problem.
Purpose: The purpose of Problem-Free Talk is to provide a breather from problem-oriented discussions, encouraging clients to explore areas of their life where they experience success, satisfaction, or competence.
Benefits: The benefits of Problem-Free Talk include reducing stress associated with the problem, igniting hope, and fostering a positive therapeutic relationship. It also assists in uncovering resources and strengths that might be useful in addressing the problematic areas.
When to use it: In solution-focused sessions, start with Problem-Free Talk to establish a positive and relaxed tone. This builds rapport and trust, allowing clients to approach problem-solving confidently and openly. It’s also helpful when clients feel overwhelmed or when shifting the conversation to a more positive direction is beneficial.
How to use it: To implement Problem-Free Talk, a therapist or coach can divert the conversation to non-problematic areas such as hobbies, interests, or positive experiences.
A potential question: “Let’s talk about something you enjoy doing during your free time. How does engaging in this activity make you feel?”
Such conversations facilitate a more positive and hopeful outlook, which can be beneficial in the solution-building process.
Strength-based questions are a key tool in solution-focused therapy and coaching, designed to help clients identify and utilize their personal strengths and resources.
Purpose: Strength-based questions shift the client’s focus from problems to abilities, fostering empowerment and self-efficacy. They help clients recognize their strengths and potential for growth. This approach promotes resilience and the belief in one’s ability to navigate challenges successfully.
Benefits: The benefits of strength-based questions are manifold. They foster positive self-perception, enhance self-confidence, boost resilience, and encourage clients to leverage their strengths to overcome challenges. Additionally, they promote a positive attitude, foster resilience, and facilitate personal growth and self-improvement.
When to use it: Strength-based questions are used to help clients identify their strengths and personal resources to achieve their goals. These questions can be used at the beginning of a session, throughout the process, and during goal setting and action planning. It can be used when clients struggle with self-esteem, feel overwhelmed by problems, or appear stuck in a negative mindset. However, they are not suitable for individuals in severe crisis or trauma who may require a different therapeutic approach.
How to use it: To employ strength-based questions, the therapist or coach may ask the client to reflect on instances where they successfully handled a difficult situation and what personal strengths enabled them to do so. This approach helps clients recognize their abilities, boosting their confidence and motivation to navigate current challenges.
Examples of strength-based questions
Here are a few examples of strength-based questions:
- “Can you tell me about a time when you faced and overcame a similar challenge?”
- “What personal strengths or skills did you utilize to overcome past challenges?”
- “What’s going well in your life right now, and how have you contributed to making that happen?”
- “What strengths do you have that can be applied to the current situation or challenge?”
- “Can you recall an experience where you felt proud of yourself? What strengths could you draw from that experience?”
- “What have you done that has helped in similar situations?”
- “Can you describe a time when you felt most alive or fulfilled? What skills or strengths were you using at that time?”
These questions are designed to highlight an individual’s resources, abilities, and skills, encouraging them to draw upon these strengths to devise solutions.
The Future Perfect is a solution-focused technique that primarily encourages clients to visualize a desirable future where their issues are resolved.
Purpose: This technique aims to help clients identify their goals and desired outcomes in a tangible and concrete manner. It promotes optimism, fosters motivation, and provides a clear direction for the therapy or coaching process.
Benefits: The benefits of the Future Perfect include enhanced clarity, increased motivation, and a proactive approach towards problem-solving. It stimulates constructive thinking and encourages clients to have a forward-looking perspective.
When to use it: The Future Perfect is normally done early in the session, right after the therapist or coach understands the purpose of the coaching session. It is then used to guide the rest of the session. It’s also useful when clients feel stuck or struggle to envision positive outcomes. It’s particularly effective in overwhelming situations or when clients dwell on past failures.
How to use it: To utilize the Future Perfect, therapists or coaches guide clients to envision a future where their problems have been resolved. This approach helps clients articulate their desired outcomes and set tangible targets, facilitating effective action towards achieving their goals.
Examples of Future Perfect Questions:
- “Imagine waking up tomorrow and a miracle has happened. How would you know? What would be the first thing you notice?”
- “Imagine a hypothetical situation where your current challenges have been resolved. What activities would you engage in that you cannot do now?”
- “Let’s say you went to sleep tonight and woke up tomorrow with no problems. What would you do first?”
- “If we were to fast-forward to a time when your issues are no longer a barrier, how would that change your approach to achieving your goals?”
- “Envision yourself in a future where your current obstacles don’t exist. How would that positively affect your mental and physical wellbeing?”
- “In a world where your problems are resolved, what would your ideal day look like?”
The Miracle Question is the most widely used form of the Future Perfect. It is a fundamental tool in solution-focused therapy that encourages clients to ponder a hypothetical situation wherein their concerns have been magically resolved.
Purpose: The Miracle Question is designed to help clients articulate their desired state of existence and pinpoint the changes required to achieve this. It aims to shift their mindset from problem-oriented to solution-oriented.
Benefits: Utilizing the Miracle Question can increase client optimism and motivation. It encourages forward thinking and helps clients identify and focus on their strengths and resources to bring about positive change.
When to use it: The Miracle Question is normally done early in the session, right after the therapist or coach understands the purpose of the coaching session. It is then used to guide the rest of the session. This technique is also effective when clients find it challenging to envision their lives without their current issues. It is not advisable for severely traumatized individuals or those who are not ready to contemplate the future.
How to use it: To apply the Miracle Question, the therapist or coach asks the client:
“Suppose tonight you go to bed and go to sleep as usual. And during the night, a miracle happens. And the problem vanishes. And the issues that concern you are resolved, but you’re still asleep. Therefore, you don’t know that the miracle has happened. When you wake up tomorrow, what will be the first things that will tell you that the miracle has happened? How will you know that the transformation has occurred?”
This approach aids clients in defining their goals and the steps needed to reach them.
Scaling is a pivotal technique in solution-focused therapy, where clients are asked to rate their problem on a scale, typically from 1 to 10.
Purpose: The primary purpose of Scaling is to provide a visual and measurable representation of the client’s issues and progress. It assists clients in recognizing incremental improvements that may otherwise go unnoticed.
Benefits: The benefits of Scaling include promoting a sense of control and self-awareness in clients. By visualizing their problem and progress, they understand where they are, where they want to be, and the steps needed to get there.
When to use it: Scaling is normally used after the Furtue Perfect. It can also be useful when clients struggle to recognize or articulate their progress. Additionally, it can be helpful when clients are stuck and need to identify small signs of improvement to stay motivated in their continued efforts.
How to use it: To implement Scaling, therapists or coaches might ask:
“On a scale of 1-10, with 1 being the worst possible situation and 10 being the best possible situation (the Future Perfect), where would you rate your current situation?”
Follow-up questions might include:
“What would need to happen for you to move up one point on the scale?”
These questions facilitate self-reflection and goal-setting, furthering the solution-building process.
Counter-finding is a potent technique in solution-focused therapy that involves identifying potential solutions based on how past situations were managed. This method focuses on finding “counters,” or elements that contribute toward a solution.
Purpose: The main purpose of counter-finding is to draw upon past successes and strengths and use these as a blueprint for managing current and future challenges.
Benefits: This technique allows clients to realize they have previously demonstrated resilience and problem-solving abilities.
When to use it: Counter-finding is used throughout the session. Practioners should use their active listening skills to listen for counters. It is also effective when clients feel overwhelmed by their current situation, as it helps them recall successful ways they have navigated past challenges.
How to use it: To put Counter Finding into practice, therapists or coaches can ask questions like:
“Can you remember a time when you faced a similar situation and found a way to handle it?” or
“What skills or strengths did you use then that might be helpful now?”
Such inquiries encourage clients to tap into past successes to devise solutions for present issues.
Exception Questions are aimed to identify times when the problem was less severe or absent.
Purpose: The primary purpose of Exception Questions is to help clients discover situations or behaviors that contribute to problem resolution, providing a basis for potential solutions.
Benefits: The main benefit of Exception Questions is that they enable clients to recognize their own problem-solving abilities, enhancing self-efficacy and promoting a sense of empowerment.
When to use it: Exception Questions are suitable when clients feel overwhelmed by their problems and struggle to see instances of success. They are less effective with clients who are reluctant or unable to reflect on past experiences.
How to use it: To implement Exception Questions, a therapist or coach might ask:
- “Can you recall when the problem was less intense or didn’t occur at all? What was different then?”
- “Tell me about a time when you managed the situation better than usual. What was different about that time?”
- “Can you recall a moment when you expected the problem to occur, but it didn’t? What were you doing differently?”
- “In the past week, was there a day or even just a moment when the problem didn’t affect you as much? Can you describe what was happening then?”
Such questions invite clients to reflect on positive past experiences and identify useful strategies or behaviors.
Coping Questions are a tool used in solution-focused therapy to help clients recognize and value their resilience.
Purpose: These questions highlight positive changes, no matter how small, shifting the client’s perspective towards solution-building.
Benefits: This technique can enhance resilience, promote self-efficacy, and create a positive outlook. It can underscore the client’s ability to navigate difficulties and affirm their potential for change.
When to Use: Use this approach at the start of subsequent sessions after establishing a baseline in the first one or whenever there is a need to shift from problem-focused to solution-focused discussions.
How to Use: To use Coping Questions, therapists might ask:
- “Despite all your challenges, how are you managing?”
- “How did you manage to prevent things from worsening?”
- “What helped you keep going despite the difficulties?”
These questions ensure clients appreciate their strengths, resilience, and coping mechanisms, fostering self-efficacy and a positive attitude toward change.
Reframing Questions is a significant tool used to change the client’s perspective on their problems or situation.
Purpose: The primary purpose of Reframing Questions is to shift the client’s view from a negative, problem-focused perspective to a positive, solution-oriented one.
Benefits: The strength of Reframing Questions lies in their ability to promote a more positive outlook, enhance resilience, and encourage creative problem-solving skills.
When to Use: Reframing Questions can be employed anytime during the therapy or coaching process, particularly when the client is stuck in a negative viewpoint or when facilitating a shift from discussing problems to exploring solutions.
How to Use: To use Reframing Questions, therapist or coaches might ask:
“What if you viewed this challenge as an opportunity? How would that change your approach?” or
“Despite the hardship, what’s something positive you can take away from this situation?”
These questions inspire optimism and a sense of possibility, stimulating the client’s ability to envision and work toward solutions.
Externalization is a strategic technique used to separate clients from their problems.
Purpose: The primary purpose of Externalization is to help clients perceive their issues not as innate, personal failings but as external challenges that can be managed and overcome.
Benefits: Externalization can reduce self-blame and guilt, increase objectivity, and empower clients to confront and handle difficulties more effectively.
When to Use: This technique is beneficial when clients exhibit strong self-criticism or when their identity appears intertwined with their problems.
How to Use: To employ Externalization, therapists and coaches might say:
“If the problem were a separate entity, how would you deal with it?” or “Let’s think of the problem as a ‘monster.’
How would you fight this ‘monster’?” These questions aim to help clients view their problems from a fresh perspective, encouraging problem-solving and resilience.
Affirming and Complementing
Affirming and Complementing is a powerful technique used in solution-focused therapy to reinforce positive behaviors and achievements.
Purpose: The primary purpose of affirming and complementing is to boost the client’s confidence and self-esteem. It encourages clients to continue engaging in behaviors that contribute to their progress.
Benefits: The benefits include enhanced self-efficacy, motivation, and a stronger therapeutic relationship. It fosters a sense of accomplishment and positivity within clients.
When to use it: Affirming and Complementing is beneficial in all stages of therapy or coaching, but especially when a client has made progress, however minor, towards their goals.
I teach my coaching students to use it toward the end of the session, just before action planning. The point is to affirm and summarize everything you heard throughout the session to the client. This helps create an awareness about all the possibilities for the client.
How to use it: To implement Affirming and Complementing, therapists or coaches highlight and praise the clients’ achievements, strengths, and positive actions.
At the end of the session, the therapist or coach might say something like:
“I want to take a moment to acknowledge the courage it’s taken for you to share your experiences and feelings today. I’ve heard you express a lot of resilience in managing your challenges. For instance, you’ve noticed that taking a walk in nature helps alleviate your anxiety, and you’ve been proactively incorporating this into your daily routine. You also shared a recent occasion when you successfully handled a stressful situation at work without letting it overwhelm you. These are significant accomplishments. Your increased awareness and active efforts in managing your stress are commendable. Let’s continue to explore and build upon these strategies in our future sessions.”
Feedback is a crucial technique in solution-focused centered around providing clients with constructive insights on their progress and behaviors.
Purpose: The primary purpose of feedback is to guide clients toward their desired outcomes by clearly understanding their strengths, achievements, and areas for improvement.
Benefits: Feedback fosters self-awareness, informs clients of their progress, and motivates further improvement. It reinforces positive behaviors, aids in the rectification of unhelpful ones, and promotes active participation in their therapeutic journey.
When to use it: Feedback is beneficial throughout the therapy or coaching process but is particularly useful after a significant interaction achievement or when clients seem unsure about their progress.
How to use it: To implement feedback, therapists or coaches should highlight the client’s achievements, discuss areas of improvement, and collaboratively plan future strategies. The feedback should be specific, balanced, and done in a supportive and non-judgmental manner.
For instance: “You’ve made good progress in managing your stress, especially in ‘X’ area. What do you think worked for you there? How can we replicate this success in ‘Y’ area?”
Goal Setting and Action Planning
Goal Setting and Action Planning is an essential technique in solution-focused therapy that involves establishing clear, achievable goals and outlining steps to reach those goals.
Purpose: The primary purpose of Goal Setting and Action Planning is to provide direction and motivation for clients. It helps clients focus on their desired outcomes and the steps necessary to achieve them.
Benefits: Goal setting and action planning enhance clients‘ sense of control, self-efficacy, and motivation. It enables clients to visualize their progress and holds them accountable for their own change process, which can lead to long-lasting success.
When to use it: Goal setting and action planning mostly come towards the end of the session. It is useful when a client is ready and motivated to make changes but requires structure and clarity in initiating the change.
How to use it: To implement Goal Setting and Action Planning, therapists or coaches might ask:
- “What are some of the changes you wish to see? How will you know when you have achieved this?”
- “What are some steps you can take towards this goal?”
These questions encourage self-reflection, decision-making, and proactive behavior, which are key components in the solution-building process.
EARS stands for Elicit, Amplify, Reinforce, and Start Again. In solution-focused, this technique identifies improvements and changes since the last session.
Purpose: The primary purpose of using EARS in this context is to help clients recognize the positive changes and progress they’ve made since the last session. This can include any improvements, no matter how small.
Benefits: Using EARS to track progress reinforces a client’s self-efficacy and motivation, highlighting their ability to effect positive change. This can foster a sense of empowerment and boost confidence in their problem-solving skills.
When to use it: EARS is used at the beginning of a follow-up session to gauge changes since the previous meeting. It’s especially beneficial when clients struggle to see their progress or need a boost in motivation.
How to use it: To implement EARS in tracking progress, the therapist or coach should:
- Elicit: Ask the client to reflect on any changes or improvements since the last session.
- Amplify: Have the client elaborate on these changes and the actions they’ve taken to bring them about.
- Reinforce: Highlight these positive changes and actions, reinforcing their ability to effect change.
- Start Again: Begin the process anew in the subsequent session, continually helping the client to recognize and build upon their progress.
Solution-focused therapy and coaching offer many techniques designed to shift clients’ perspectives, foster resilience, and enhance their ability to navigate challenges. Factors such as goal setting and action planning, coping and reframing questions, and externalization all play a pivotal role in this therapeutic and coaching approach. Although each technique varies in the application, they share a common objective: to empower clients to envision and work towards solutions rather than remain entangled in their problems. Remember, it’s about facilitating a journey from a problem-focused mindset to a solution-oriented one.