Solutions Focus Approach

by Paul Z Jackson

Building a platform

How do I start taking a solution-focused approach and ensure I establish a good platform?

The good news is that you can influence a conversation or a project from the outset, increasing the likelihood that it will be a constructive, useful and energised interaction. You can establish a good platform, whether it’s in a talk with one of your team who can’t find a way forward, or with a customer complaining about your service, or even with a colleague who continually moans about their job, their partner or the weather.

The platform is the starting point for a constructive project, meeting or conversation, where we shift from talking about the problem (or what is not wanted) to identifying what people do want (the solution), gaining agreement to work on the topic and explore the benefits of doing so.

Platform building includes

  • Establishing a starting point
  • Checking that the project is worth embarking upon
  • Ensuring that the people involved are prepared to do something.

You will save a great deal of time by building a platform at the beginning of a project, conversation or meeting.

What it entails

First, you need to establish several points to build a good, solid platform from which you can work constructively.

  • Who wants what

You need to clearly identify what people want from the enterprise. It is worth asking as many people involved as possible. This is also an opportunity for you to state what you want from it.

  • Who is prepared to do something

Sometimes people want matters to be different yet are not prepared to do anything about it. For example, it may be that somebody wants their boss to do a better job or wants the organisation to change, yet doesn’t want to be part of the process of changing it. Therefore it’s important, when you establish the platform, that you are clear that somebody is prepared to do something.

  • What would be the benefits of moving forwards

Asking about benefits at this stage serves a number of purposes:

  • As you are exploring the benefits, somebody may become more excited or committed to taking action and becoming useful and proactive
  • You find out more about what is important to the people involved, which may be useful information as you progress
  • If there is little or no benefit to spending time on this topic, then it’s worth finding out early on – allowing everyone either to stop there or to explore further to find something that you do want to work on.

You also want the platform stated in positive terms, beginning with words such as ‘I want...’ This contrasts with the negative grammatical phrasing that people often use when faced with problems or difficulties (typically, ‘I don’t want...’).

If somebody told you they didn’t want a cup of tea, it’s unlikely you would ask them more about the cup of tea that they did not want. Yet in conversations when somebody says (for example), ‘I don’t want my team to perform so badly’, the temptation is to ask more about the poor performance of the team – the ‘performing badly’ that they do not want. You are then drawn into a conversation about what the person doesn’t want. This is unlikely to be useful and will probably centre on problem talk and analysis, resulting in little direct action.

You know you have established a platform (and are ready for the conversation to move on) when you are clear that the person or people involved want something to be different and are prepared to do something about it.

How to establish a good platform in practice

Sometimes people don’t know what they want from a conversation or situation; in such cases, you can help them by building a platform together. The platform-building drill below, developed for just this purpose, is adapted from the work of Finnish psychiatrist, Ben Furman. It goes like this:

Listen to the story – what the person is saying

Here, you are listening for clues suggesting what the person may want. For example, if they say, ‘I don’t want to be so tired all the time’, you might guess that they want more energy. Sometimes, you will be lucky and they will state directly what they want. ‘I want more energy when I step into the office’.

Acceptance

You might say, ‘That’s a tough situation...’ Here, the idea is to let them know that you have heard them and are willing to acknowledge how it is for them. At the same time, you take care neither to introduce nor get drawn into problem talk.

Building – identifying wants

After listening closely, you will have an initial idea of what the person wants. They may have told you directly or you can make a reasonable guess. At this point, it’s useful to say, ‘So what you want is...?’ and for you to state the platform succinctly. If you get it right first time, that’s great, and the conversation can continue to its next phase. If not, that’s still useful, as the person is likely to build on what you’ve said or correct your misunderstanding, and together you can get clearer about what they would like to discuss or work on.

Tip

If somebody states things in the negative – for example, ‘I don’t want to be so busy’, or, ‘I don’t want my boss to be hassling me all the time’ – ask them what they would like instead.

Check for benefits

You want to ensure that this is a conversation worth having. Asking about benefits – how making progress on the issue will enhance the life or work of the person – helps to establish and articulate the value in the topic.

Check that the person is prepared to do something

Remember, you know you have a platform when the people involved want something to be different and are prepared to do something about it, so you check this out here too.

Example

Here’s an example from a coaching session.

Coach: What do you want to talk about today?

Listen to the story

Craig: Well, the biggest problem I’ve got at the moment is Michael. He works for me and I need him to see that there is a problem here – and that he needs to do things differently. I need him to change his behaviour.

Acceptance

Coach: Sounds like a tough situation: so tell me, what would be useful to you from our conversation today?

Building – identifying wants

Craig: It would help if I could find a way to tell Michael that there’s a problem.
Coach: And remind me what is it that you want Michael to be doing...
Craig: I want him to see there’s a problem and for him to listen to me.
Coach: So what you want is...?
Craig: What I want is for him to do what I ask him.
Coach: So you’d like some ideas on how to get him to do what you ask?
Craig: Yes, that would be useful.

Check for benefits

Coach: How is that useful for you?
Craig: Well, if I could find ways for him to do what I asked, we’d get much better results as a team.

Checking if he’s prepared to do something

Coach: And if we come up with some ideas, do you think you might be prepared to try them out after this session?
Craig: Well yes, I’ve got to do something about this.

You can also establish your own platform – that is to say, express clearly what it is that you want – at the beginning of a conversation or meeting.

For example, as a manager dealing with somebody’s habitual lateness, you could say, ‘I’d like us to discuss and come up with ideas of how you could get to work on time more often – are you happy to have this conversation and try out a few things as a result?’

If you are starting a new project with a colleague, you might say, ‘We’ve got 30 minutes for this initial meeting; by the end of it I’d like us to have agreed how we can work well together and have some ideas of how to start this project – is that OK with you?’