Berg and Szabo: Brief Coaching for Lasting Solutions

This book is a good ready-to-go manual for the new or busy coach looking for new ideas or reinforcement of practice enthusiasm. Whether it lives up to its promise of providing lasting solutions is something that only time and longitudinal research studies can tell.

Rating: 3.5

Brief Coaching for Lasting Solutions

By , 2005. ISBN 0393704726. W.W. Norton. xvi, 241 pages.

This is an authoritative book on solution-focused therapy (SFT), translated into coaching terms, from one of the founders of the approach (Insoo Kim Berg) and the Director of a Swiss coaching school, Peter Szabo. SFT comes from 1980s Milwaukee, from experiments in family therapy, and claims success with a wide range of client presenting problems, including multiple social problems, alcoholism, some criminal behaviour and some psychiatric disorders (see Alasdair Macdonald’s ambassadorial and surprisingly persuasive Solution-Focused Therapy:
Theory, Research and Practice
).

Solution-focused therapy is distinguished from most other approaches to counselling and psychotherapy in being (a) brief, usually 1 to 5 sessions; and (b) oriented towards clients’ existing and improvable strengths. Its latter characteristic means that it largely eschews ‘problem talk’ and denies any necessary link between causes and solutions. Its mission is to help people rapidly identify what they want; to appreciate the ways in which they are already doing their best; indeed sometimes doing very well against great odds; how they find ways (at least sometimes) of not succumbing to repeated problem behaviour; and to reinforce positive attitudes by using SFT techniques as self-help strategies. SFT is described for theoretical purposes as a constructivist approach, that is it rests on the view that we create our own realities by using certain language patterns and desensitising ourselves to alternative possibilities. For all its acclaimed novelty, SFT isn’t quite so different from Egan, personal construct therapy, and many aspects of cognitive behaviour therapy, indeed from many other short-term approaches generally. Its also sits well alongside the current ascendancy of positive psychology and the renewed pursuit of happiness.

Berg and Szabo have written clearly and used lively case examples, boxed learning points and tips to craft an accessible reader-friendly text. We are taken from necessary introductory material, through explanations for how people change (the authors are happy to cite the ‘fake it until you make it’ principle, for example), to goalsetting, harnessing clients’ idiosyncratic skills, negotiating and experimenting. The well-known SFT techniques such as the miracle question, scaling, exception finding, complimenting and conversational gambits are spelled out. A five-step model for addressing the problem of clients sometimes not complying is provided. SFT is nothing if not relentlessly positive. Anyone who has watched Insoo Kim Berg on video/DVD will have been struck by her apparent inability to be thrown by client negativity. Unfortunately many British viewers are unsure if they can authentically emulate her as she voices a series of ‘Wows’ at every tiny utterance of the client that might be construed as infinitesimally solution-oriented. But there are some useful challenges here, such as ‘the myth of the perfect choice’, for example in the case of a client deciding between two jobs or a geographical move and the accompanying, often paralysing irrational belief in the awful, irreversible finality of choices. Style-wise, SFT is commendable for its use of humour, curiosity and imagination: there is certainly a huge difference between letting the client dig themselves deeper and deeper into personal archaeology and impasse on the one hand, and lifting them into immediate new hope and possibility on the other.

Observers of the therapy world may have noted that a great deal of fairly traditional therapeutic literature has recently been transformed into coaching literature. (See Stephen Palmer and Alison Whybrow’s Handbook of Coaching Psychology for example.) One might either applaud the creativity behind this or suspect its blatant opportunism. Some friends in the coaching world have confessed to a considerable overlap between coaching and counselling/therapy theories and techniques and an acknowledgement that adding coaching to your practitioner repertoire can do no harm to your income. The non-pathological flavour of the term coaching (and mentoring) and its target market (often corporate executives with bigger bucks to spend than struggling impoverished clients) bodes well for this development. It could also prove to be a ‘moment of evolution’ for the therapy world as it perhaps moves more into the mainstream.

Quite clearly an approach like SFT (or, here, SFC) fits very neatly into the corporate world and certainly may have a place with anyone who is stuck and over-analytical. Providers of employee assistance programmes like it, and many otherwise ‘hopeless’ clients may welcome it. The newly bereaved, sexually abused or traumatised (and those helping them) are advised not to make this their first port of call. This book is a good ready-to-go manual for the new or busy coach looking for new ideas or reinforcement of practice enthusiasm. Whether it lives up to its promise of providing lasting solutions is something that only time and longitudinal research studies can tell. For those with any doubts about the unstoppable American faith in happiness — coming your way courtesy of the positive psychology movement and what looks like the naivety of Lord Layard — see Robert Lane’s The Loss of Happiness in Market Democracies or Eric Wilson’s Against Happiness (both instructive because written by sceptical Americans). Some brief interventions help briefly, sometimes change takes time, and unfortunately some things have to be endured. Coaching for an uncritical positive attitude must be balanced with such wisdom.

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