The practitioner is continually on the alert for times when the client reveals or demonstrates competencies or strengths, brings these to the attention of the client, and affirms or reinforces them.
Making time for ‘problem-free talk’ or general conversation completely unrelated to problems can also provide space or opportunities for competencies and strengths to be revealed (O'Connell, 2003; p67).
It is important to take note of these and refer back to them when the time is right. Helpers encourage clients to find and acknowledge their own resources, strengths and qualities. The worker is always looking for opportunities to feedback to clients what they are doing right. “The solution-focused counsellor sets out to help clients be more aware of how they have made changes, however small, and how they might maintain or extend them” (O'Connell, 2005; p66).
The use of ‘how’ questions invites clients to think about what competencies and strengths were required for them to carry out a constructive action e.g. How did you manage to do that? How did you know it was a good time to do that? (O'Connell, 2003; p7).
Competence seeking may require active questioning or exploration aimed at helping the client recognise evidence of competencies or strengths in their accounts of previous and current efforts to find and implement solutions. It is often important to ask questions at the level of fine details such as what, who, where and when, in addition to how, because “The client’s strengths and resiliency show in small things they do, not in huge, heroic things” (de Shazer, et al., 2007; p122).
For clients who tend towards pessimism and self-criticism there may be a reluctance to accept credit for the changes that have taken place. It is important that they do accept credit for their own contribution and do not attribute progress to the counselor (O'Connell, 2005; p66).
The key purpose of identifying and reinforcing competencies and strengths is to help the client recognize how they can be employed to maintain and improve the solutions that have been identified and which are currently emerging.
In providing reinforcement be sensitive to the personality of the client. A celebratory tone can be embarrassing for some people. Many respond better to more subtle compliments and quietly expressed reinforcement.
Skilful use of questions and conversational strategies to reinforce strengths and competencies 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.