In today’s world, we hear a lot about problems, but rarely hear about solutions. The tendency to focus our attention on problems permeates our work, too. How often have you found yourself in a team meeting listening to problems but not leaving with a clear solution? Because the human brain is wired towards negativity as a coping mechanism, we often focus on problems.
However, with the right training, we can overcome this. The solutions-focused approach counteracts our human tendency to jump to the negatives.
We wanted to learn more about the solutions-focused approach within coaching, HR, and management, and that’s why we sat down with Paul Z Jackson. Paul is an independent training consultant who offers solutions-focused coaching to his wide range of clients. In this interview, Paul shares some practical tips and insights into the solution-focused approach, including when and how to implement it, who benefits from it, and the results that teams and managers can expect to gain from the practice. We hope you enjoy reading this piece as much as we enjoyed interviewing Paul!
Before we dive into the interview, let’s first take a look at the definition of the solutions-focused coaching approach and explore its advantages. If you already know all about this, feel free to skip over and go directly to the interview!
What Is Solutions-Focused Coaching?
Solutions-focused coaching is a coaching approach that emphasizes solutions, strengths and resources over problems, weaknesses and limitations. This approach is based on the belief that clients have within them the capacity to find solutions to their problems and that the coach's role is to support and facilitate the discovery process. It is outcome-oriented and focuses on the future while dipping into the past as a source of resourcefulness.
The Advantages of Solutions-Focused Coaching
‘’The trouble with traditional approaches to people's problems is that they assume a straightforward relationship between cause and effect, between a problem and its solution. A solutions-focused approach sidesteps the search for the causes of a problem and heads straight for the solution, showing you how to envisage your preferred future and quickly takes steps forward.’’
Paul Z Jackson, The Solutions Focus: Making Coaching and Change SIMPLE.
Let’s explore some solutions-focused coaching advantages below:
- It encourages clients to take responsibility for their own progress, promoting a growth mindset and empowering them to make positive changes in their lives.
- It provides a supportive and encouraging environment for personal and professional development.
- It is outcome-oriented and focuses on the future, dipping into the past as a well of resourcefulness.
- It helps clients to identify their own solutions and develop a clear path toward achieving their goals, while also building confidence and resilience.
Now that we have some more context about the solutions-focused approach, let’s dive into the interview:
Niamh Pardi, Session: Paul, within your coaching business, what’s your strategy for helping coaches and consultants implement the solutions-focused approach to help their clients?
Paul: Sometimes we train coaches from scratch and sometimes coaches already have practice, methods, and clients, and they simply want to build, develop, and learn new skills. Solution focus is a really cutting-edge methodology, so it's a great addition to any coach's skill set.
Because the solutions-focused approach is conversation-based, there's no expensive machinery or systems that you need. You can learn it by attending a webinar, doing a training course, or reading about it, and people can ‘’get it’’ quite quickly. We find that people are either ready for it and they see the sense immediately, or they're reluctant and take a while to warm up to the idea, or they may never see its value.
We can make progress with our clients faster by asking them what they want, focusing on their resources, (which is the strength-based element) and helping them decide what to do next. It’s important to remember that the solutions-based approach is an invitation. It’s an offer or an invitation rather than saying ‘’this is the only way to do things.’’
Niamh Pardi, Session: For someone who's starting out and has never focused on the solutions-based approach before, what would be a starting point for them? How would you introduce the practice?
Paul: There are different ways of approaching it. One is to share some stories of how effective solutions-focused coaching has been. Another is to use some of the research that shows that solutions-focused works well with ranges of clients and that it's beneficial for the coach as well as the clients. There’s less burnout and it’s less stressful because the coach is engaging in more constructive conversations from the outset. So there's a lot of attraction to that.
Next, we can say it's really quite simple and easy to learn and you can start trying it straight away. And that there are only a couple of things we need to achieve to be solution focused. First, find out what the client wants. If it's a team, you need to find out what they all want or what they want between them. You also need to find out about their strengths, resources, experiences, and skills that might contribute to deciding what to do next. The final thing is about knowing what progress might look like so that you can take a step towards it or recognize it when it happens.
Niamh Pardi, Session: Within an organizational setting, once the individual has this coaching approach in place, how do you see solutions-focused affecting the larger organizational structure and the team?
Paul: Sometimes it does start with individuals who are going into a culture that isn't oriented in a solutions-focused way. Sometimes it's a team and sometimes it is a whole organization that's interested in a solution focused approach and whichever it is, they're likely to be doing it in a problem-saturated world.There's something about humans that are attracted to problems, the analysis of them and being aware of them, and there's an element of sense to that. The problem of saturation is enhanced by the media; there's a preponderance of bad news because it grabs our attention. But none of those things are necessarily very useful if what we want to do is create progress or make useful change.
Therefore, solution focus is applicable when you want something to be different and you're willing to do something about it - even if you don't yet know what that is. It’s interesting to introduce it in team and organizational settings because you can create a project that's more powerful than one individual. If you get a group of people that want to do that, they can make tremendous progress. So they can either start from a setting where they know something is wrong and they want it to be better, or it can be a fresh project of creating a Future Perfect, as we call it, a desired scenario of how things would be if they were going well.
There’s all sorts of interesting and exciting ways to achieve this. Visioning, storyboarding, and playing out future scenarios, for example. Then the resource search: assessing what we've got that's going to help us get there, or that we can easily find from people adjacent to us, or that we can discover further afield. All in all, it’s a pragmatic, collaborative approach that works extremely well when there's more than one person participating with a conscious awareness that it's a solution-focused process.
Niamh Pardi, Session: When you train the solutions-focused method to HR and managers, what does this instill within their organizations?
Paul: We're working with an organization now in the UK, and we’ve started with their HR department.
It's a great place to begin because HR has its hands on all sorts of levers within the organization and can be instrumental in introducing more of a coaching culture. They manage the performance review processes, which can be easily tweaked to include solutions-focused questions. HR and management can also form a group of champions who talk to each other about different solution-focused applications within their organization and then offer it either themselves or with external help, wherever it might be usefully applied, and build on what they're already doing.
Niamh Pardi, Session: Within those leadership teams, do you ever see a reluctance to the solution-focused approach? And if so, is there a way to overcome any skepticism around the practice?
Paul: Yes, I think people are naturally skeptical and they've often got a long history of getting very deeply involved in problems, so they may not be ready to let go and make that switch, but we're not ‘’solution forced’.’ Instead, solutions focus is an offer and a possibility for them to try, test and see if it works for them. Fortunately, it has pleasant elements that people find quite attractive from the start. And when you've developed a vision that's appealing, it creates motivation, and participants show a willingness to explore how to get there. When you're talking about people's strengths and good experiences and good qualities, they enjoy that. And if you're inviting them only to take a small step rather than something that's really tough or difficult to do, that also has an element of simplicity and immediacy and can build momentum. So yes, sure, there's skepticism, as there should be. Initially, not talking about problems may seem a bit odd. But people generally find that refreshing and come to realize that the solutions-focused approach doesn’t require any kind of faith; it's based on giving it a go and seeing if it works for you.
Niamh Pardi, Session: For organizations that might not have access to workshops and more in-depth solution-focused training, are there any other recommendations that you would give to build up the strengths mentality within the team?
Paul: Absolutely! There's a wealth of free resources in the world now. Look up solution focus change on the internet and you can get free videos, downloaded articles, and access to all kinds of immediate, good-quality, solution-focused tips. You can also get coaching one-to-one or for a team very cost effectively. There are apps and short courses, so it's a question of choice and taste as well as budget to enter the solution-focused world. It's a very generous and sharing community, with in-person and virtual conferences where people present what they're doing and learn a lot from each other. Solutions-focused is welcoming to practitioners and clients, with plenty of goodwill and a lot of access currently.
Niamh Pardi, Session: Can you talk a little bit about the strengths-based approach and solution-focused approach? Can they be used interchangeably or are they separate definitions?
Paul: In practice, they look very similar and they're close cousins, with a few interesting differences. Strengths-based comes out of a psychological perspective where strengths are treated as real entities that people ‘have’, that they can measure and use and build. On the other hand, solution focus comes from more of an interactional perspective of people doing things, usually with other people. So we don't require them to ‘have a strength’ (which overused suddenly becomes a ‘weakness’). Instead we suggest people think about themselves in terms of doing things well, usually in relation to what other people are doing - an interactional and description-based view. But that's a philosophical difference rather than a temperamental or practical difference.
Niamh Pardi, Session: That’s great to know the difference between the two - thanks for explaining that so well. Well Paul, that brings me to the end of my questions, thanks so much for speaking with me today, I learned so much.
Paul: Thank you too. Take care!