“Language is a precursor for action“ Toni Morrison
The following transcipt is from a one-to-one session with a 13 year old boy who caused concern following his extremely aggressive behaviour. There were also concerns that he had learnt this behaviour from his childhood in a country where he had seen street violence and feudal wars as an everyday occurence. (Names have been changed)
EM: Thanks for being punctual Asif – appreciate that.
EM: Can I give you an idea of why I have been asked to see you today?
EM: Miss Henderson and Mr Ash have told me that you are achieving well in many areas
EM: and they have asked me to listen to you about particular issues.
AK: What issues?
EM: [referring to notes..] Well, let’s see: on Wednesday before break, you took the lead in a group discussion. On Wednesday after break, Mr Ash said you were self-disciplined and patient even though you were annoyed at Jojo for winding you up and, then there’s one last one I have: you were clearly listening and taking part in the Maths set.
EM: I would like to ask you questions about how you achieved in those areas and perhaps we could do that either in this session or in our next session together.
AK: Why do I have to see you again?
EM: I like to meet with pupils twice at least: once to look at achievements and listen to pupil’s and teacher’s goals and second time to review what’s working well and any other goals from pupils and teachers.
AK: What’s teacher’s goals?
EM: Well, to do more of what is working for you, for example leading in group discussions more often; continuing with your discipline and patience as you have been doing and stretching that discipline and patience to times, for instance, when you are really angry.
AK: What are they saying about when I am angry?
EM: Miss Hendeson said that you are very physical and rough with the other boys when you get angry and she would like me to listen to you on that.
AK: I hit Ross, he’s bigger than me so you can’t say I was bullying him.
EM: Well bullying is more than hitting someone smaller than you isn’t it: bullying can be making someone uncomfortable just by looking aggressively at them. But let’s talk about the hitting. First I have to say that we have a duty to protect every pupil including you in the school. For instance if a boy joined this school who was aggressive or violent with you and even if you werent scared of him – we would still have to help him change that behaviour. Does that make sense Asif?
AK: Yeh, okay. Its just me innit, I like being strong and I like people not being able to push me around
EM: We like the fact that you are strong and that people can’t push you around Asif – its good for you and it helps keep you safe. Now can we talk about what the line is on “keeping yourself safe” and “risking other people’s safety”. For instance, if we celebrate you being able to look after yourself, can we now look at what you can do to make sure that other people feel safe around you.
EM: Let me know if you understand what I am saying Asif
AK: I don’t know I’m doing it sometimes, its just me.
EM: Okay – let’s go back to you leading in group discussion on Wednesday. Tell me how you did that?
AK: I just didn’t want to sit there like a dummy – I just talked that’s all.
EM: ……and your patience and discipline when Jojo was winding you up on Wednesday afternoon?
AK: I just ignored him.
EM: That’s two behaviours that you are able to tell me about on how you controlled yourself and your actions; I just want to add a third one to that list and wonder what you would be telling me next week if I asked you how you disciplined your physical behaviour?
AK: What like…..acting different?
EM: Yes, acting differently – doing something differently like you did when leading the group and being disciplined with Jojo. You “did” something differently then didn’t you – that’s all I mean
AK: Oh, right, okay, yeh – see what you mean. What like though?
EM: I don’t know, I guess, having some kind of mechanism, do you know what I mean by that?
AK: Like a gadget?
EM: Yes, fantastic, exactly like a gadget. Say that you had a gadget that you controlled in your brain, and I suppose that is another word really for what everyone does when they decide to act one way or another, but say you had a gadget that you switched on when you needed to act differently – more calm for instance – when you were around other pupils, whether they made you mad or not. What would you call the gadget?
AK: Something like………………………..LONG PAUSE………..I dunno, a clicker? That’s stupid, I dunno
EM: No, its not, I like it. A clicker, can I just make sure I’ve got this right – say I was using it when I was talking to Year 9 and they wouldn’t quieten down and instead of shouting at them, I clicked into my calm action and spoke quietly or did something funny like sit on the floor which would make them quiet wouldnt it? That would be clicking into a different action wouldnt it. I like that idea.
AK: Don’t say I said it though if you do that…………….
EM: No, of course not. Okay so what do you think about putting this “clicker” into place for the following week and us meeting up the same day next week and discussing how you did it, when you used it, what was different, who noticed and how good it was – that kind of stuff?
AK: Okay – who will notice then?
EM: Well I would like to ask the teachers, not just Mr Ash and Miss Henderson but others too, to tell me when they see you doing it and to ask them what difference they think it makes to their relationship with you for a start. Would that be okay.
AK: Yeh okay, but I dont think they’ll remember
EM: Well, let’s at least have a go. I think its very exciting this “clicker” thing of yours
Eileen Murphy’s NOTES:
I think by saying “the teachers have asked me to LISTEN to you” was quite an important difference. This is more attractive to a pupil than saying “the teachers have asked me to TALK to you”. Even just saying to a pupil “I would like to listen to you about this issue, so can we meet up?” is more attractive when planning a session.
What ever works for the client…………
I was recently talking with a middle aged woman who has given up smoking and drinking in the space of eight months – a feat she previously considered impossible as she had been drinking alone every night in her house and it had become a way of life for her. She had also been a heavy smoker and would walk half a mile to the petrol station in the early hours, if she had to, rather than be without cigarettes.
I was intrigued as to how she had achieved this and she said she had created a “bluff therapy” for herself. Her explanation of this went like this: “I know my brain is craving the alcohol so I trick it into thinking I am drinking but really I am only drinking non-alcohol beer“. When I asked her how she dealt with the craving she explained in small detail how she sat in the same way, in the main chair in front of the TV, how she made everything cosy like she used to with alcohol and how she used her special glass as usual and how she did everything she used to in order to “bluff the brain”.
I told her that I thought it was a great strategy but was still puzzled at how she dealt with the withdrawal and she tapped her head “It all here for me – I tell myself that anytime I want to, I can walk over to the off-licence, buy the “other stuff”, and drink myself stupid like I used to. Then I can wake up to the feeling of shame and horror the way I used to. I can do that anytime I want so I say no to that feeling not to the drink itself – does that make sense?”
I explained that as far as I was concerned, it didn’t matter a jot whether it made sense to me, it was working fine for her. I then asked her what her strategy was for stopping smoking and she whispered conspiratorally “Bluffed it – first I smoked herbal cigarettes to deal with the puffing need, and I chewed nicotine lozenges to deal with the hit that nicotine supplied me with. After a while I stopped the herbal and reduced the lozenges – then the brain knew it was on a hiding to nothing after a while so stopped nagging for the nicotine“.
I am not advocating the Bluff Therapy for anyone else – everyone is unique and everyone finds their own way, however quirky, but I was lost for words when she told me that she didn’t have much success when she rang a helpline once asking for an aftercare number. She said that she got talking with the Operator and she told him how she had achieved her sobriety so far – the Operator told her that she was kidding herself. “Yes” the woman replied, “that’s exactly what I am doing“. “You havent got a chance with this” he said “alcoholism is a disease“.
She told me she thanked him for his advice and quickly put the phone down “in case her brain heard him”.
The importance of analogies:
Analogies and metaphors are a useful part of the approach.
When working with people – Solution Focused practitioners listen to “who they are and how they see themselves” and we adapt our language accordingly.
In simple terms, people convey these things in real ways all the time in the language they use; their interests and the symbols they surround themselves with.
When I undertake a home visit, for instance, I look around the room and remembering the saying “take a look around this place you call home – you are reflected in all things you own” – I take on board everything around me as a possible indication of how my client sees themselves.
So even if all I have to go on is that the client has a plant that is obviously cared for, I may use a gardening analogy tailored to the issue I am there to discuss. An example of this was a woman whose erratic and disciplinarian parenting skills were causing concern to the referring Social Worker.
On looking around the living room, I saw many plants obviously watered and looked after and in the corner a very large Lemon Tree plant – having tried to grow one myself, I commented on the difficulties I encountered and asked her advice.
The woman explained that in order to ensure good growth you had to “tinker” with them and “gently guide them towards the relevant light etc” and “how important it was not to over-water them and equally ensure that they were adequately watered”.
It was immediately clear that she derived great pleasure from the plants, not least because they responded to her “tinkering” and care and this is in turn encouraged her to continue with the success she was having. I decided to make the analogy and just hoped that I wouldn’t make it too complex:
“You’re so right Sue – its just about getting the balance right isn’t it? Too much and the plant goes haywire – too little and it can’t grow properly – all a bit like parenting isn’t it?” She looked at me puzzled.
I continued “Its just come to me really that its all about balance and if you think about how well you have struck that balance as a gardener – I was just wondering how you strike that balance with Jason to ensure that he gets the right amount of guidance without restricting his growth with too much discipline?”
Because I had posed a question rather than make a “this is how you parent properly” statement – Sue responded in a positive way and a healthy discussion followed.
I did not ask her how she “would strike that balance with Jason” – I asked her how did she strike that balance with her son Jason? In the first instance. This achieves two things – it offers respect and courtesy, because I presume she knows it must be done – then in the same moment that the analogy hits home – I ask her how she does it.
This gives her two choices – she can either say “I don’t think I do” which then leaves the conversation to begin or she can display her new found knowledge and describe how she does it. What she may be doing is describing how she plans to do it – either way it’s the start of a new way of thinking.
The use of analogies (a similar process of reasoning) is not a new concept in the journey towards resolution and change – it probably outdates therapy by a thousand or so years.
“Getting stuck in gear”
I remember once talking with a young man who was not finding much success in his attempt at drug recovery.
While we talking he used phrases such as “I’m doing alright sometimes but I get stuck in gear and its like I never come out of third“. As a pedestrian, I struggled to remember what represented a move on from third – but eventually got it; “Have you ever got to first?” I asked “Yeh, a couple of times in the past but not lately – I keep slipping back down“.
Dreading anything more complex that might involve engines – I asked “Could you tell me what you did to get to 1st the last time?”. He proceeded to explain how he took different routes past certain areas on his way home (this is such a common response to this question – I now bring use Google maps in sessions).
When I asked him how that helped, he was able to explain in response to the detailed questions about particular streets etc., and what was different for him that evening. He continued to explain how just that one night he didn’t feel so “open to the crap that comes at you just walking through the estate“.
We then talked about what was different for him that evening at home? Physically? how he distracted himself and what he did differently the next day? – again in small steps. It transpired that the next day he had looked for a methadone prescription but because he failed the urine test (the criteria is three days free of drugs before a prescription is given) he couldn’t obtain it. (There is another whole issue here but I will resist the urge to stand on the soapbox).
The whole session was about looking at Exceptions – times when he had made some small move on or responded differently to the problem times.
This achieved many things, not least of which is the starkness of the basic human failing to remind ourselves of any strength or time when we did achieve a small goal in relation to our current difficulties.
Because we don’t do this – having someone to raise our awareness of those small differences and achievements allows us to recognise that our actions did make a difference to our situation. Therefore we realise that if we repeat what was successful, in any small way, we have a better chance of acknowledging and repeating the small successes that made a difference.
The case study below is a good example of how simple and effective solution focused language can be.
The case study below highlights how we can often ignite a thought process simply by assuming its already happening and asking the client how they do it – specifically when I ask Luke how children calm down after play.
Why is he facing the wall v How does he face the front?
Luke, aged 9, was referred by the family’s allocated Social Worker following his parent’s particularly difficult divorce, resulting in Luke living with his father. With his parent’s permission, the school asked if I could make a school visit to talk with both Luke and his teacher, Mrs Robinson, in order to deal with his problems at school.
I arrived at the school during breaktime, Mrs Robinson was waiting for me in the classroom and relayed the problems; Luke was extremely disruptive in class; rarely completed homework or came equipped for school and found it difficult to settle down after breaktimes. This meant Luke having to sit at the top of the classroom facing a wall during lessons in an attempt to prevent him from being distracted or from distracting other.
I asked Mrs Robinson whether there were any occasions, at all, when Luke had not been disruptive in the classroom – she thought there might have been a day in the previous month when he seemed to be getting on with his work without any disruption.
I asked whether she could remember an occasion when Luke had completed and returned his homework – Mrs Robinson remembered a day last week when he had returned it and placed it in the special tray that she kept for returned homework.
On asking whether he ever returned to the classroom in a calm and appropriate manner – she could not remember there ever being an occasion when he had.
I asked if Luke could be brought to the classroom at this point and Mrs Robinson asked if I needed to see him alone – I advised her that I was sure that she was going to be a very important part of the solution and asked her to stay.
When Luke arrived, I shook his hand and said that I had been having a very interesting conversation with Mrs Robinson about him and that “Mrs Robinson tells me that last month you had a good day in class and got on with your work well and I was wondering if you could tell me how you did that?”
Luke looked puzzled – he had imagined, I’m sure, that he was being called to discuss his behaviour problems and it took him a moment to take my question in.
He eventually answered “Yeh, I didn’t get told off or anything”. I leaned forward and asked him to talk me through as much as he could remember from that day. He could only remember odd bits – “I didn’t get told off and I did my work good”. I asked Mrs Robinson what she remembered of that day and she replied “Well it was just a quiet, working day, Luke was sitting working well and I didn’t have to move him, he put his hand up to ask a question.”
I interrupted and asked Luke “How did Mrs Robinson respond to you when you put your hand up? Did she see you straight away?” – Luke said that she didn’t but that he had waited for her and she saw him. I then asked further questions of Luke “How did Mrs Robinson help you to have a good day? What was she doing? How was she talking with you? How comes you were able to stay out front for the whole day?”
Luke replied “Because I was good, she didn’t have to tell me off or put me back on the wall.”.
I then said that Mrs Robinson had told me that recently he had done his homework, walked in to class and placed it in the tray – could he please tell me how he had done that: “Take me back to the night before – what did you do differently at home that meant that you were able to do the homework?”. Luke explained that his father had turned the TV off and had sat down to read his newspaper and Luke had been bored so got his homework out of his bag and did it.
I asked Luke how he calmed himself down after breaks. Mrs Robinson, thinking I had misheard our earlier discussion, attempted to remind me that he wasn’t able to calm himself down after breaks and I conveyed my deliberate mistake to her by non-verbals and asked the question again. Luke said that he just came back into class but that “Miss said I’m still noisy”. I suggested that it must be very difficult for people who are playing football, running races and having fun to suddenly stop and put on a different feeling to go back into class and he agreed.
I said that I wondered how children could “put on that different feeling” if it were a mask or something? How could they “get ready for class” and at what point the “getting ready for class” would happen? Which bell – the first one or the second and whereabouts it would happen – in the queue or elsewhere?
Luke said that he thought saying the word “calm” would be a good way of getting ready to come back into class and that the first bell would be the best way because then you’d get extra seconds for the “calm” to work.
I asked Luke what would be different in the classroom when he came back from the playground and he said that Mrs Robinson wouldn’t have to keep telling him to be quiet – I asked what she would be saying instead and he said she would be “saying nothing, not even saying my name, just smiling at me and tell me to sit down at my place”. I asked him where his “place” would be and he pointed to the seats in front “somewhere out here, near my friend James”.
I then asked “On a scale of 1-10 Luke, with 1 being that you are never going to get off the wall and 10 being you could face the front – what number he thought he was on”. He replied “a 10 for me but not for Mrs Robinson”. I asked what number he thought Mrs Robinson might be on and he replied “maybe a 1”. I then asked Luke, that if that were true, what needed to happen so that Mrs Robinson could get to a 2 and he said that he needed to stop “astracting [distracting] everyone”.
I asked Mrs Robinson what number she was actually on and she replied “much higher than that – I would like my wall back!”.
I then asked Luke “if you went home tonight, went to bed and went to sleep and while you were sleeping a “magic” thing happened and the reasons why you had to sit at the wall had disappeared – when you got to school tomorrow, how would you know?”
Luke said he would come into class, put his bag on one of the front chairs and Mrs Robinson wouldn’t stop him. Then he would put his homework in the tray and sit down and would work and not “astract” anyone. I asked how Mrs Robinson would know this magic thing had happened and he replied “because she wouldn’t have to move me back”.
I then talked him through the day; the breaktime; the calm mask; putting his hand up if he wanted to ask a question; then leaving school and going home and repeating the homework incident [with Mrs Robinson being asked to telephone Luke’s father and thank him for his “strategy” of turning the TV off so as to encourage Luke to do his homework] and asked if they all agreed that the “magic” day could start tomorrow or whether there was a reason why it couldn’t. Neither Luke nor Mrs Robinson could think of any reason and it was agreed that as from the next morning, Luke could come in and sit out front to start the new day off.
I wished Luke well and he left the classroom.
Mrs Robinson said that she was greatly encouraged to hear the part she could play in the solution rather than be left with a problem and that she would take full part in the “magic” day.
By focusing on the times when the problem wasn’t happening at the very beginning of the session – it engaged Luke immediately as he had been expecting, yet again, to hear the things he had been doing wrong.
By focusing on the times when he had met expectations – Luke was encouraged to see that he had strengths and had achieved in the past and could achieve again.
In talking through “who will be doing what the day after the problem is solved?” Luke could identify what small things he could do; that Mrs Robinson could do and what could change at home that would help him.
In normalising the difficulty of making the change of mood from playground to classroom for all children, Luke was able to see the normality of it and think of a strategy for children to use that would allow them to “get ready for class”.
Most importantly during this session – a watershed was instigated thereby offering the possibility of change, of starting and achieving something rather than stopping something.
By offering Mrs Robinson the opportunity to see herself as “part of the solution rather than part of the problem” she was more involved and more motivated to notice any change in Luke.
Luke’s father would be asked to help subtly and without recriminations as only he would really know whether his turning off of the TV was a “creative decision” or a random exception.
I was contacted 3 weeks later by Mrs Robinson to say that the “Magic Day” had been happening every day with Luke sitting out front and getting closer to his ultimate goal which was to sit next to James. The “calm” mask was working very well and Luke was “conforming to expectations whilst in class” but would I be able to come in and do a similar session between Luke and the Dinner Ladies who said that Luke was ill mannered at lunchtime? I suggested to Mrs Robinson that she invite Luke and the Dinner Ladies to describe the “Magic Day….”
Often it is not change itself that is difficult to instigate, no matter how long the problem has existed or indeed, how great the problem, but the belief that change is possible. Often it is not creating the “watershed” that is difficult but the belief that people will respond to it.
My experience is that offering a watershed – excites change. Accepting that change is possible and describing it in small steps “what will be different?” “who will notice?” – allows change to be imagined.
By inviting people to rehearse in their heads how they will achieve change “what happens then?” “how did you do that?” – people are able to see their strengths, coping abililties and strategies in preparation for change.