The counselor helps the client to focus in a concrete and detailed way on the various components of the solution (O'Connell, 2005; p69).
- Clarifying the changes that the client wants to make;
- Committing to strategies that are already being used and which are proving helpful;
- Making incremental changes that enhance the effectiveness of current strategies;
- Harnessing competencies and strengths that may be used more often and more consciously within the solution, and
- Identifying and abandoning strategies that are not working.
A key principle of SFT is ‘If it’s working, keep doing it’. The therapist encourages the client to keep doing what they has shown they can already do (O'Connell, 2005; p32).
Sometimes new constructive strategies emerge just before or around the time that the person seeks help from a service provider. This new behaviour may feel strange and artificial and it may take some time and practice for the person to become confident enough to sustain it.
The counselor helps to identify things that will help the person maintain the changes. These are called maintenance strategies (O'Connell, 2005; p67).
Questions to ask at this stage include: What needs to happen for you to keep the changes going? What might stop you from doing that? How will you overcome those obstacles? Who could be on your side to help you with some of this?
Answers to questions about maintenance strategies will provide opportunities to revisit strengths and competencies that could be used more often and more consciously, building on to the strategies that are already being used. Questions at this stage aim to evoke and stimulate learning strategies: What do you think that [strength] says about you? How did you know when to come in with that [useful behaviour]? What have you learned from what you have tried so far? How do you think you can use that [competency] next time the problem comes up?
Learning strategies are also evoked to explore ways of letting go of strategies that are not working: What have you learned to stop doing? How will you manage to stop doing it again? What will be the gains for you when you abandon your ‘failed solutions’? (O'Connell, 2005; p67).
It is important not to focus too much on setbacks. Failure can provide opportunities for learning. A relapse or setback can help throw into clearer relief what the solution might look like. At the very least the client can eliminate one course of action from the list of possible solutions.
A specific reinforcement and learning technique often used by SFT practitioners is to construct a message at the end of each session. This might involve summarising key strategies identified by the client during the session and reinforcing these by complimenting him on progress made. The practitioner may also give the client a task to carry out before the next session (O'Connell, 2005; p35).
Don’t underestimate the ability of the client to change. A key challenge is to maintain the right balance between caution and optimism. Although small incremental change is often the most wise and realistic approach, there are times when clients are ready for major changes. Excessive caution at this point on the part of the counsellor can lead the client to missing the optimum moment for major change (O'Connell, 2005; p73). That clients possess the ability to change is a foundational assumption of SFT.
Skilful and diligent use of questions to identify, highlight and compile the varied elements of a solution is demonstrated by Insoo Kim Berg in Chapter 7 of de Shazer et al (2007). This is a long transcript of a solution focused conversation with a young man who harmed himself the previous evening.