From Solution-Focus to Personal Consultation

- An E-Mail-Interview With John L. Walter -

Wolfgang Loth



Preliminary Remarks (1)

In 1992 John L. Walter and his wife Jane E. Peller published their book "Becoming Solution-Focused in Brief Therapy". The book turned out to be a bestseller, e.g. in the meantime having its third edition in German. John Walter's workshops and seminars are highly recommended in US and abroad. Recently, when John was in Flensburg, Germany, in May, 1998, I had by friendly invitation of Juergen Hargens the opportunity to meet him. Juergen, John, and I had a lot of interesting and inspiring conversations. John agreed to my proposition to have an interview per e-mail after his return to Chicago where he and Jane Peller are co-directors of "Consultations". The interview took place between June and September 1998. In the interview John describes his path from a solution-focused brief therapy-perspective to Personal Consultation, a pragmatic narrative approach, looking at the conversation as the author.


 Wolfgang Loth (WL):

John, when you published your book "Becoming Solution-Focused in Brief Therapy" in 1992, it represented the state of the art of "solution building." However as "change is inevitable" SFT might have changed, too. What were, from your point of view, the main kick-offs to go further on, and what are the main developments of SFT since then?
 

John Walter (JW):

Thank you for the opportunity to talk with you about where our work is going and what we are interested in at this time.

At the time that we wrote, "Becoming Solution-focused in Brief Therapy" in '92, we already suspected we were in transition. Before then, we had naively thought that there would be a point in the future at which our work would be complete. However, by the time we finished writing, we realized that what we were writing would continue to evolve and what we had written thus far was merely a snapshot or frame out of an evolving movie.

As you suggested our work has continued to change. Inspirations for further change have arisen out of concerns about what we were doing at that time as well as out of curiosity about new and different ideas.

One concern that we had in the early nineties was over the possibility of being too solution-focused. We were concerned that in our zeal and enthusiasm of getting the session to be solution-focused, that we could in some ways be limiting our abilities to listen to and respect what our clients were telling us or wanting to talk about. Perhaps in our fascination with "exceptions to the problem" and pretreatment change, we were giving clients the impression that we were interested in only the good news and not in their pain or discomfort. If that was the case, we wondered if our clients could be feeling a lack of interest or understanding on our part. Perhaps our consultations were becoming "too" brief because clients were leaving our meetings feeling misunderstood or not listened too. We felt we needed to broaden our way of being with a client.

We also felt limited by the problem / solution distinction. The field had privileged problem-focused approaches for many years and we felt the shift to the solution side was refreshing. However, we began to wonder if there was not some other construct or some other way of thinking that would lift us out of the limitations of problem-solution thinking. We began to think that a preference or goal orientation would be simpler if we could think of goal in a more fluid fashion.

At the same time poststructural and postmodern ideas piqued our curiosity. We began to think of goals, preferences, concerns, and emotions as conversational events or stories emerging between consultant and client. When we thought of goals and preferences as emerging stories rather than as concrete facts or targeted physical events, our work took on more of a collaborative look rather than one of strategizing about a problem or solution. As Harlene Anderson and the late Harry Goolishian would say, we became more curious with the client about their stories of preference or preferred stories. As we changed our assumption that clients had to do something in order to solve their problems, we became more drawn into and curious with the clients about the emerging stories of what they preferred in their lives. As we did that, we noticed that even more sessions were going in a smoother and more optimistic manner.
 

WL:

I think this is very interesting because it gives me an impression of some kind of self-reflexive power in Solution-focused Brief Therapy. The more I became familiar with Solution-focused Brief Therapy concepts and practice I feared the possibility of translating these concepts into effect-maximizing instructions of managed care companies, for instance, thus separating solution-focused practice from some of its basic premises, client autonomy and respecting relationships.2 This, I feared would make a "trivial machine" out of it, to speak in terms of Heinz von Foerster.

Maybe the term "solution-focused" is likely to narrow the understanding of what works. "Solution-stimulated therapy" and/or "solution-stimulating therapy" might fit more. Such a perspective would fit more with the findings of researchers like Michael Lambert, who stress the importance of "extratherapeutic" and "relationship factors" according to psychotherapy outcome.(3) The impact of specific techniques seems to be small in relation to those factors. We could ask: What stimulates looking for solutions? How could we stimulate looking for solutions? instead of: How to focus on solutions? The crucial point seems to be to distinguish between the collaborative working for solutions and "solutions" as entities of their own.

How do you define "solution" for yourself? When do you know, that for you something important got solved?

 JW:

Thanks for the comments. I feel as well that the crucial point is about a collaborative working with the client. However, even a solution-stimulated mindset keeps us within the problem/solution dichotomy. Lately, we are just more focused on a client's goals or preferences. Thinking about goals, preferences and possibilities helps us and the clients get out of problem-talk and solution-talk.

Could you say a bit more about your second question. I am not sure what makes you ask it or where the question is coming from.

 WL:

Seems as if my question is evolving from some sort of problem-solution thinking. I understand that you are looking beyond such an orientation; a solution-focus no longer defining your work. In your most recent "Consultations" handouts you describe assumptions and guidelines of a "Goal-focused Personal Consultation." While the goal-focused part, or goaling as you called it in the workshop, provides a lot of practical/pragmatic impulses, the "personal" part seems to put a link to Carl Rogers' client-centered orientation. My impression is, that more and more authors in the systemic field start referring to Rogers.(4) How do you think about it? Is this going back to the roots, or Rogers "plus"? What would be the "plus"?

JW:

Thanks again for your quick reply.

I think the "Goal-focused Personal Consultation" is as you said an attempt to move out of the problem / solution thinking and to introduce the idea of goal in a different way. The attempt is to recognize that our consulting conversations are quite purposeful while at the same time recognizing that purposes may only become clear as the conversation continues.

The reason for calling it consultation is to move away from the word therapy with all the medical and pathology discourses and baggage that are tied to the term. Consultation seemed the closest term to how we see our role. We are helpers, counselors, advice-givers, and listeners. While the word, consultant, does not seem to capture all that we want to say, we thought the word comes close enough. We added the word personal to distinguish ourselves from business consultants, financial consultants, legal consultants, etc.

I am struck as you are how many people from a systemic or strategic orientation are talking in terms that sound more like Carl Rogers. I do not think that the systemic world is harking back to roots or trying to imitate Rogers. My knowledge of his work is weak. However, while Rogers was client-centered, empathy-oriented and, I think, congruency-oriented, I think he was probably monistic in his thinking as opposed to systemic.

What is happening in brief consultation, solution-focused therapy, narrative therapy, and collaborative approaches, is a move away from the consultant-client distance that was created by evaluation, assessment, and strategizing that was characteristic of systemic models. Instead, there is a growing emphasis upon collaboration with the client(s) and in our case, the collaboration is centered around what the clients say they want. With this growing interest in collaboration, many of us are more aware of and concerned about the relationship between the consultant and client. If before we maintained relationships by strategy, we are now more concerned about fostering a mutual, open, and encouraging relationship. We are more curious of not just how to foster and maintain the relationship but also how new preferences and possibilities about the client’s developing goal can develope from within the relationship and from the conversation.

In nondirective therapies, everything had to come from the client. In strategic therapies, the therapist took more of an active, directive stance. In the first approach, the client was the author of the emerging story. In the second, the therapist was the expert or the director of the process. In collaborative approaches, the collaboration or the conversation is the author and director.

Wolfgang, if this seems abit far afield from your question or too distant, let me know and I will try to provide some examples of what I mean.

 WL:

No, what you said seems to be very close to my question. Nevertheless, I'd find it very useful and interesting, if you would illustrate this position with examples. Theoretically it makes a lot of sense to me, when I hear: "the conversation itself is the author and director." Theories of self-organization and synergetics seem to fit to that. However, practically, I cannot deny my interest in having a clear impression of what is my part of the job when "co-authoring" new narratives, my personal contribution to personal consultation, so to speak. So, an example could help to catch this point, where theoretical and behavioral perspectives meet.

 JW:

When I use the term conversation as the author, this is an expression Lynn Hoffman uses to describe postmodern applications to therapy(5). What it means for me is this. When previously we used interview and intervention as our operating metaphor, we thought in a linear fashion. The therapist made an assessment and then designed an intervention that would meet the facts of the problem.

With conversation as the author, I think that new ideas emerge as the client and consultant create an atmosphere of openness, speculation, and curiousity. The punctuation of the interchange is expanded beyond linear. The interchange is seen as more mutual, as both client and consultant influencing each other rather than only the therapist influencing the client. If the client perceives the consultant as being judgmental or not validating what they are saying, my best guess is that the client begins to say less and is less likely to speculate about new ideas. Instead, the consultant offering validating responses as well as encouraging responses seems to invite a much more open and speculative atmosphere.

In a teaching tape of one of Jane's sessions, the client has indicated that she wants to stop drinking. As she is speaking of the recent couple days since she was discharged from a hospital treatment program, she mentions that she has insisted that her husband leave their apartment. Jane asks if that was different for her to do. The client says, "Yes." Jane asks what gave her the "courage" to kick him out. This is not an attempt to reframe the woman’s view of her actions. Jane heard this woman’s actions as a courageous step.

Jane has heard this woman's actions as an act of courage and reflects that to her in the question. This validating and encouraging statement within the question opens up the possibility for the woman to go on and create a story of herself with in the notion of courage and her having taken a "different" action. Both the client and Jane become curious about this different action and how she managed to do it. She begins to talk about (create new story) how she recently decided that maybe she does not need him like she used to think. She has realized that she was paying all the bills for the two of them and there was no more intimacy. So, she was beginning to wonder why was she putting up with all this. Jane reflects that it sounds like lately she is taking care of herself more.

I think this example shows that the emerging story of what this woman is doing is different than the story she may have told of herself upon first coming in to see Jane. The author of this newly emerging story of courage, competency and taking care of self does not seem to be exclusively Jane or the client. The authorship seems to be taking place in the larger context of conversation rather than the actions of either one.

With the notion of conversation as author, I think it is easier to think that what we are about is creating an atmoshphere where these kinds of stories can emerge.

 WL:

The idea of creating an atmosphere of openness, speculation, and curiosity as the central task of therapists or consultants made sense to me at once. I remembered some of my experiences with clients in the last few weeks and I remembered Lambert's research outcomes highlighting the impact of so-called extratherapeutic factors and of the therapeutic relationship. When I first read that, I was st(r)uck because I thought, so what is my job? What am I paid for? Thinking further about it and reflecting on my actual experiences as therapist or consultant, I became clear that a big part of my job consisted of creating circumstances allowing these "extratherapeutic" therapeutic factors to get more influence than before, sometimes simply in form of giving them names. having a look for dignity of the persons involved, and so on.

However, there is one point I'm still not so clear with. The term "conversation as author" and your reflections about it highlight the collaboration of client and consultant, in the sense of "looking at systems as process."(6) On the other hand, there seems to be a need sometimes for a non-process view. For instance, the actually processing political system in Germany made a law this year, extremely narrowing the possibilities of psychotherapists who find it more helpful to orient themselves other than behavior-therapeutical or psychoanalytical. Furthermore there are ideas being talked about that Consulting, too, will be regulated in the next few years. So there seems to be a need to specifically describe consultants‘/ therapists' actions as their special contribution to the process. Theoretically this could be seen as some sort of a delicate systems-environment distinction. Practically, I have to find means to describe my professional expertedness without devaluating clients. What are your ideas about that? If I see it right you, too, offer descriptions of "highly effective personal consultants." How could that fit?

 JW:

With regard to your situation in Germany with the different professions and theoretical camps competing, I am not sure that I have a response that would be helpful.

However, in response to your question of how to describe your expertness without devaluating clients, this is what I would say.

To say that conversation is the author does not diminish the role of client or the role of the consultant. What the client takes home at the end of the consulting meeting is not just the product of the consultant, not just the product of the client, and not just the sum of what each individual brings to the meeting. Their working on this together produces something unique.

Even what Lambert calls extratherapeutic factors are not factors on their own. The consultant and client create a relationship and conversation where outside factors can be acknowledged, talked about and created. The factors are not produced on their own and do not exist on their own outside of the conversation and the client and consultant bringing them to light. A client story that does not signify these factors as successes makes them irrelevant.

What expertness we bring as consultants includes a disposition on our part that facilitates an open conversation. This means being able to (a) suspend judgment, (b) be curious with the client concerning what s/he wants, (c) listen with a different ear not just to her or his discomfort but also to the courage, optimism, and successes, (d) attempt to understand the client's understanding, (e) entertain multiple points of view, and facilitate the construction of a future containing what they want.

This expertness involves on the one hand, the skills to create with the client an open conversation, and on the other hand, to facilitate a constructive conversation where new ideas and possbilities about what the client wants can take place.

In metaphorical terms, I imagine that the consultant is facilitating a relationship where the conversation can be open and a mutual visualization of the future can take place.

 WL:

Would you see any limiting circumstances for narrative approaches? Or issues, you would say that would probably not fit so well to a narrative approach? If so, how do you deal with such a situation?

JW:

I am not aware of any limitations or concerns of lack of appropriateness at this time per issue or problem. What I am concerned about more at this time is what clients are thinking of and what are their evaluations of what it is that we are doing with them. While it is fun for you and me to speculate on the usefulness of these ideas, I still wonder what difference it is making to our clients. Are they feeling any more listened to, helped, or inspired by our using conversation as our metaphor than they were when we were using systems and information theories as our metaphors?

 WL:

Good question, but how to ask the clients? On the other hand we could have a look at some research outcomes.(7) The results support clients' preference for collaborative conversations. But they, too, cannot answer the question, whether they (the clients) experience their being MORE listened to, getting MORE inspiration, and so on. The "More" question seems to refer to the issue of effectiveness. Perhaps collaborative approaches are not more effective than those biasing a therapist-as-expert-stance. What I have to ask myself is whether I wish to define therapy/ conversation solely in terms of effectiveness or efficiency. If so, collaborative approaches probably could be conterproductive. But when I start from the premise, that effectiveness and efficiency should be reflected in a context of respect, respecting clients' autonomy, respecting their being experts for their meanings, feelings, lives, then collaborative approaches seem to fit much better than others. It's a wider context, including political implications. I have to ask myself, what I will stand for.

And at this point there seems to be another point of significance, a possible limitation of narrative or collaborative approaches. These limitations don't refer to specific issues or problems. They refer to my own biases and preferences. The consequence is, as I see it, to attentively and carefully reflect with the clients, whether they accept my offer or not. I remember how attentive and consistent you checked during that roleplay at your workshop that I attended, whether you already had "got the job" (of the consultant) or not. That was very impressive to me. What I'd like to ask you now is, when do you know that you got the job? What has to have been happened? And what do you do, when it doesn't happen? And what do you do when you got the job from another person than the one you are talking with?

 JW:

In regards to your last question of how I know when I have been hired by clients, the simplest answer is when clients say, "From coming here to see you, I want to improve my marriage (or be less fearful and be able to leave the house, or other similar style statements)." Clients making such statements is the clearest way I know of what they want from coming to the personal consultation. Without such a statement, I am afraid I may be assuming or interpreting what clients want. So, I am careful to ask that question explicitly and to check carefully with clients by repeating what I have heard so that we are in understanding of what is the purpose or goal of our talking together.

Many times clients tell me about their situation or clients tell me the story of the context for their deciding to come to see me. However, they have not yet told me what they want. For example, last night a man came in and talked for some time about the situation of his year-old marriage. He spoke about his hurt and disappointment in how his wife had changed rather dramatically in the past year. She had gone from being very open and caring with him to being very critical and nit-picky with him. She openly criticized how he made love to her. He had concluded and explained to himself that she must have some personal problems given her unfortunate family history. Thus far, we had discussed his situation but I was not sure if or what he wanted from coming to see me. So, I sympathized with his disappointment, hurt and confusion and then asked what he was hoping for from coming to see me. He said he thought there was only a 25% chance of things working out. Howver, before he gave up completely, he wanted to see if things could still work out.

During this conversation, I would say that we were in a process of forming and understanding what he wanted from coming to the personal consultation. His saying that he wanted to see if things could still work out was an initial sign of his hiring me.

Sometimes, clients are required to come to see me by a probation officer, a protective service worker, a boss, a commanding officer of the military, or some other person. The clients in these situations of required attendance with me very often indicate initially that they do not want anything from coming to see me. Very often they indicate that their coming is just compliance and that actually they are very angry about the requirement.

At this point I would not say that I have been hired by them or that we have an understanding of what they want. We may then talk about the circumstances of their being sent to me as well as what the person ordering the consulation wants from sending them to me. I want to be curious with them about all this and interested with them of what may be the possible benefit of their complying with the order. Just as with the example above, I want to explore with the client if there is not some goal or purpose that we can create together. The goal may end up to be the client's proving to the person ordering the consultation that the ordered changes are occuring so that the clients can get what they ultimately want. What they ultimately want may be to keep their job, get off probation, get their children back, etc. On the other hand clients may decide that the ordered changes are not worth it and they do not want to continue the consultation.

Either decision is okay. As a consultant, I assume that I should not side with the ordered goal. I work with clients in helping them determine what they want. For example, with a man ordered to come to consultation because of alcohol use affecting his job performance, the goal may become the client proving to his employer that he is changing his use of alcohol or abstaining from using alcohol. While the client may never have thought that his use of alcohol was a problem, the goal from his way of thinking is that changing his alcohol use may be a means to keeping his job. Keeping his job is his ultimate goal and is what we talk about. Proving to his employer that he is making this change becomes a means to his keeping his job.

In these circumstances, there may be another customer as well and that is the person who is ordering the consultation. I will want to talk with that person as well about what she or he wants in sending this person to me.

While the expression "clients hiring us" focuses on the clients' making decisions about the consultation, from a conversational understanding, the deciding is mutual. In other words, the goal is mutually developed and the goal is mutally assented to by both client and consultant. The notion of hiring is thought of as going both ways.

 WL:

Seems to me that we reached a fine point from which to have a look at a summary. As I got it personal consultation is characterized by a mutuality and goal-orientation, with consultants being responsible for keeping in mind these two basic premises, respecting relationships and the mutual concentration on (new) practical options are assisting each other.

That reminds me of the term "narrative solutions" you mentioned to me in Flensburg, but I'm not quite sure which item you related it to. May be you remember?

My two last questions are: What do you expect to be some significant future issues in the field of narrative personal consultations?

And what question would you you have liked to have been asked and didn't happen yet in our conversation?

 JW:

With regard to your mention of my reference to "narrative solutions," I was referring to the recent work of Joseph Eron and Thomas Lund from Vermont. They have attempted to integrate MRI Brief Therapy ideas with the notion of preferred view of self and some other ideas from their contact with Michael White and Narrative Therapy. Their work is summarized in their book, "Narrative Solutions" through Guilford.

With regard to your question about future issues in the field of narrative personal consultation, I have only a couple of comments.

I hesitate to call our work narrative, because of the strong association people already have of that word to the work of Michael White and David Epston. While I have made many references to narrating processes and the broader concept of the narrative metaphor, I think it could be misleading to readers to think that our personal consultation approach is to be associated with the more specific work of White and Epston(8). I think at this point we share many resemblences but also some differences.

I think there is a growing concern at this time for us and for others of the need to revisit the question of ethics. The question becomes for me how do we talk about ethics both for us within our professions and for the society at large if we are taking cultural difference, diversity, and the social construction of values and meaning seriously. How do we determine what are already our values and ethics as professionals? Who determines what those values are? How do we want our professional standards to be? How do we create a conversation about standards?

I do not think there are any additional questions that I wish you had asked. I would like to thank you for your questions and the opportunity to exchange with you and readers some of our ideas and meanderings.

 WL:

Thank you very much, John!



 Remarks:

(1) A German translation is published in  Systhema 12(3), 1998, entitled: Vom Lösungsfokus zur Persönlichen Konsultation. Ein E-Mail-Interview mit John L. Walter.

(2) Steven Friedman 1997. Time-Effective Psychotherapy. Maximizing Outcomes in an Era of Minimized Ressources. Boston: Allyn & Bacon.
Judith A. Huntington 1997. Glossary for Managed Care. Online Journal of Issues in Nursing: http://www.ana.org/ojin/tpc2/tpc2_gls.htm

(3) Michael J. Lambert 1992. Implications of Outcome Research for Psychotherapy Integration. In: Norcross, J.C. & M.R. Goldfried [Eds.] Handbook of Psychotherapy Integration. New York: Basic.

(4) Raphael J. Becvar & Dorothy S. Becvar 1997. The Client-Therapist Relationship: Comparison of Second Order Family Therapy and Rogerian Therapy. J. of Systemic Studies 16(2), pp. 181-194;
Scott D. Miller et al. 1997. Escape From Babel. Toward a Unifying Language for Psychotherapy Practice. New York: Norton;
Bill O'Hanlon & Sandy Beadle 1997. A Field Guide to Possibility Land: Possibility Therapy Methods. Omaha, Na.: Possibility Press.

(5) Lynn Hoffmann 1993, Exchanging Voices. A Collaborative Approach to Family Therapy. London: Karnac.

(6) Hendon Chubb 1990. Looking at Systems as Process. Family Process 29, pp.169-175.

(7) E. van Ryn & M. Fine 1997. Client Perceptions of collaborative Meaning-Making in Couples' Therapy. J. of Collaborative Therapies 5(1)
T. St.James O'Connor et al. 1997. On the Right Track: Client Experience of Narrative Therapy. Contemporary Family Therapy 19(4), pp.479-495.

(8) White, M. & D. Epston 1990. Narrative Means to Therapeutic Ends. New York: Norton ,
Hart, B. 1995. Re-authoring the stories we work by: Situating the narrative approach in the presence of the family of therapists. Australian and New Zealand J. of Family Therapy 16(4), pp.181-189.
Kogan, E.E. & J.E. Gale 1997. Decentering Therapy: Textual Analysis of a Narrative Therapy Session. Familiy Process 36(2), pp.101-126.
 

John L. Walter, LCSW                                                         Wolfgang Loth, Dipl.-Psych.
e-mail: WalterPeller@aol.com                                                 kopiloth@t-online.de

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