Receiving his award for distinguished contribution to SF thinking, Luc Isabaert said, 'There is no orthodoxy in SF thinking. Steve de Shazer was a heterodox thinker, a man of science and philosophy. And Insoo was a practitioner.'
If his point was to encourage continuing questioning and development of this thing we call SF, then hurrah! But it would be disappointing if this were taken to mean that just any philosophy or practice could be labelled SF, simply because its exponents had an interest in 'being positive' or it featured whatever happens to constitute good practice in a particular context.
By way of illustration, let's consider the keynote presentation titled 'Solution focused approach in crisis management' given by Matthias Herter, Bern's head of the Police Crisis Negotiation Unit. Matthias Herter told us he'd attended Steve de Shazer workshops. But I failed to detect much evidence that this had made any difference to the practices of his team.
Their task is to spring into action when someone's life is threatened, such as a hostage situation, a kidnap, blackmail or house sieges. The critical factor that triggers their involvement tends to be 'excessive desperation, rather than criminal intent' - cases where the perpetrator is 'unable to cope any more'. This would seem a good setting to test a solution-focused approach.
Herter explained that they recruit people with 'an SF mentality', as they are easier to train as good negotiators. The unit promotes a team culture, so that the main negotiation speaker ('Speaker No 1') is well-supported and 'never fails'. They aim to be patient and creative with perpetrators, avoiding prejudice and stereotypes. These ideas would fit neatly with the SF principles of The action is in the interaction, Focusing on what works well, and treating every case as different.
But then he described their central model of negotiation in ways that sounded most un-SF-like. They apparently use a 'behavioural changement stairway model' - which to be fair may have lost something in the translation (from German). He said that the intention is to influence the perpetrator, first by the technique of Active Listening. Now I recall studies that show that Active Listening is largely ineffective in creating a good relationship and often counter-productively annoys people. It's different in any case from an SF approach of listening intently for what people want and their resources and responding primarily to that.
Step 2 is 'Empathy' - which he describes as understanding how they got into the situation and empathising with that. Step 3 is 'Influence', in which the negotiator might say, 'I've been thinking about this and wonder if you've been thinking how it's going to end?'. This is the 'crucial moment': if the perpetrator doesn't go along with this, then you are stuck and can't proceed to the next level.
None of these steps are SF. They come from entirely different traditions of philosophy and practice. In SF, there is no requirement to build empathy (whatever that may mean) before going on to stages in which you actually 'influence'. In SF, by contrast, you can assume you are influencing from the outset, as in any interaction.
Now of course Matthias Herter knows his milieu much better than I do and we can presume he and his team are doing exceptionally well in a sensitive and difficult job. But even if it is best practice, that does not make it SF, and I'm guessing they could benefit from a SIMPLE inventory. Even if the differences turn out to suggest marginal improvements, these would be important distinctions because the negotiations are typically time-critical and delicately poised.
What might happen if they started a negotiation with every effort to find out 'who wants what?' This could, for example, reveal a desire for safety for some or all parties. What else does the perpetrator want - and what difference would getting that make to him (or her)? Speaker No 1 might now show their understanding by repeating back this 'platform' and getting the answer 'Yes'.
To what extent are the team treating the perpetrators as experts in their own lives? How much is the 'relationship' between negotiator and the target seen as unique - Every case is different - rather than the team questioning 'what kind of relationship' it is, that can be checked against a pre-existing model of relationships?
Why does this matter? While Herter described his work, we didn't see his work, so we don't have a direct view. A day earlier, we both saw and talked about Insoo Kim Berg's practice.
Harvey Ratner showed us a tape of Insoo interviewing a client at Brief in 2006, a first session. It was a good opportunity to watch what an SF practitioner seems to be listening for - as evidenced by which offers from the client she picks up and responds to. And - in her choice of questions - what she is focusing on.
After some preliminaries about the taping of the session, Insoo asks, 'What kind of work do you do?' The client replies (approximately) 'Not much, that's part of the problem. I don't know. I write for a classical music magazine.' Insoo is very selective in what she plays back: 'So, you're a writer', she says, and in her next comment, 'And a musician also'.
A few moments later, she comments about the writing, 'I bet you're good at that.' At every step she is studiously overlooking the many 'invitations' to discuss the problem. This is probably contrary to the expectations of the client - and it's not 'Active Listening', in which she would restate or summarise more of what the client said, including the problem aspects of her statements.