That may highlight a difference in disciplines, yet there is a great vista of common ground – particularly when you look at practitioners who label themselves as within the PP and SF camps. Many of each are professional coaches, which makes it possible to compare and contrast the approaches within that specific field. We can observe how each group is taught and how each practises, for example.
It is tempting for an SF practitioner to see PP as a wonderful body of published research, whose findings (academic and rigorous) support all the thrusts of typical SF interventions -
(http://www.thesolutionsfocus.co.uk/content/coaching-better-results-faster). And PP’s view of SF? Well, the view is almost non-existent. SF is a tiny field of negligible significance. There is almost no mention of SF in any PP literature. The body of SF research is either overlooked, discounted or dismissed.
There are significant differences in how each approach conceptualises the world. PP talks of ‘strengths’ and ‘character traits’ – as you would expect from a psychological discipline. There is an interest in the constructs of ‘personality’, whereby individuals have personal characteristics that tend to be universal – meaning both that other people have the same characteristics, perhaps in a different mix, and that individuals somehow ‘have’ them and keep them over time.
An SF view is more likely to pick out salient aspects of a particular situation – finding resources or exceptions within contexts: a resource for meeting a particular challenge, an exception to a particular problem. An SF practitioner has no interest or belief in universal strengths. In a quest for simplicity, if a concept of ‘universal strengths’ adds no practical value for coaching, therapy or explanation of what’s going on, then we don’t add it to the repertoire. Occam’s Razor applies.
PP wants to find out what’s generally true and produces theories that can be tested. The possibility that the generally-true theory does not apply in this or that singular case is a price worth paying. The trouble for an SF practitioner taking such a view is that you’d start looking for confirmation of the theory, rather than applying a ‘not-knowing’ stance or the ‘Every Case Is Different’ principle, which appear to be useful attitudes for a coach to take with a client.
Another distinction that often comes up when SF and PP people gather in a conference bar is that PP – being psychology – takes a great interest in what happens in the head. It speculates about what is going on mentally, and plays with ‘in-the-head’ concepts such as drives, motivations, beliefs and values. SF by contrast is interactional; it seeks the action in the interaction, that is between people. This observable surface of what’s going on – who can see and hear what - has all that you need to work with, so there is no need to delve or to speculate about what is happening in people’s heads.
There is an aim for the philosophical rigour expressed by Wittgenstein scholar Daniel Moyes-Sharrock’s phrase, ‘Don’t excavate, speculate or complicate’. The mental is manifest in our way of acting.
How do these differences show up if we watch, say a coach of each stamp work with their clients. We might reasonably expect an SF coach to take a minimal, not-knowing view of what will work for the client, and to structure the conversation to find out what might be useful for that client, based on the client’s specific desires, resources and willingness to take some action.
A PP coach might have a few more ready-made interventions and recommendations up her sleeve. ‘Try this gratitude practice’ or ‘Learn to be optimistic – research shows that optimistic people live up to 10 years longer’. If you’d agree that such predetermined recommendations have no place in coaching, then what is left to characterise a PP coach or distinguish them from an SF coach who finds what’s wanted, looks for resources and skilfully and respectfully keeps the conversation on that track?
What are Positive Psychologists doing coaching at all, we might wonder. Well, reasonably enough, some wish to create interventions that have a positive and lasting impact on the world. Such work ventures beyond the academic, but may be founded on solid research – particularly on the ‘gold standard’ of double-blind, controlled and repeatable experimentation. Or the coaching itself may be part of an experiment, to find out what works or to prove/disprove a theory.
Then, like any documented SF coaching intervention, it adds something that may be of interest to the world.