Questions to Consider When Hiring a Solution-Focused Trainer or Seeking Certification

There are so many people saying they are providing solution-focused training. Are they all really using Solution-Focused Brief Therapy?

It is very common for professionals to combine Solution-Focused Brief Therapy (SFBT) with other approaches and philosophies. Because of this, SFBT is commonly confused with problem solving approaches, motivational interviewing, positive psychology, and strength-based approaches. Some clues that the training might not be based on the original, evidenced-based, Solution-Focused Brief Therapy are words like “solution-oriented” or “solution-based.” In addition, we now have the international organization, IASTI (International Alliance of Solution-Focused Teaching Institutes). This organization helps those seeking training to readily identify training institutes who are known for teaching the model according to these original standards. Denver Center for SFBT is a member of this organization and currently certifies professionals in SFBT.

Can you provide a list of Solution-Focused questions?

People often ask me for a list of Solution-Focused Questions. While on the surface it might appear this would be helpful, I have found that lists of Solution-Focused Questions actually slow down people’s learning of this model and result in a technique-driven, superficial application. Here’s why.

There really are no pre-set Solution-Focused Questions. What is most important is to understand what makes a conversation Solution-Focused vs. problem-focused, what we are asking at any given point in a conversation with a client, and how to perfectly match the wording of each question with the specific client with whom we are speaking.

Steve de Shazer used to say that he had no idea what question he would ask next until he heard what the client just said. The most important part of using Solution-Focused Practice is the ability to genuinely hear each client, know which of their words to follow, and how to build our next questions from the client’s words. This takes practice and skill . . . and most importantly, an understanding of these underlying concepts. I find that people who have learned Solution-Focused Practice by using pre-made lists of Solution-Focused questions lack these most important components.

How important is it that what I learn is based on the original approach as developed by Insoo Kim Berg and Steve de Shazer?

It really depends on what is important to you. It may not be important at all depending on your goals in wanting to learn SFBT. However, it is important to know that one can only get the amazing results with the most difficult clients as documented in research and on video tapes and during demonstrations when SFBT is learned as it was originally developed. SFBT is an evidenced-based approach, and needs to be learned correctly in order to obtain the results documented in the research. When it is combined with other approaches or when the interventions are used outside of the unique mindset, it becomes watered down and less effective. While it may work with the easy clients and simple problems, it will not work with the complex and chronic issues unless it is learned with the precision and purpose that can only be taught by those who teach it in its purest form. Lastly, we find it commonplace for some trainers to talk about "improvements" or their own adaptations to the model. These are frequently due to misunderstanding the intentions and the evolution of Insoo and Steve's thinking throughout their careers rather than a weakness in the model itself. At Denver Center for SFBT we seek to help learners truly understand how SFBT effectively addresses concerns that others express.

How can I tell if something really is solution-focused brief therapy?

There are a lot of myths out there. For example, I’ve recently read something that said that what differentiates SFBT from other approaches is that SFBT is short term and episodic. While these two facts are often true about SFBT, they certainly aren’t unique to the approach. Even some of the solution-focused interventions such as Scaling, Difference Questions, and Relationship Questions can be found in other approaches.

What makes SFBT different and unique is actually very simple. Traditional treatment begins with the problem and seeks to find a solution. Solution-Focused Brief Therapy takes a very different approach. Instead, in SFBT, treatment is done beginning from a clear description of the desired goal and working backwards. Because of this, hope that change is possible is increased, disbelief is suspended, and the client’s natural way of thinking is respected in an environment of creative accountability. This accountability comes from the solution-focused professional asking Relationship Questions in a systemic way of thinking. This helps clients to evaluate possible decisions and think critically as they implement the steps they envisioned when thinking from this future place; a place in which the problems are resolved.

Lastly, the cornerstone of SFBT is a respectful, curious, not-knowing stance. Insoo and Steve were known for their humble, non-boastful way of being. They were confident without bragging. They believed in a model of attraction rather than promotion. Striving to be the "biggest and best" is not consistent with the solution-focused mindset. Instead, SFBT is about being present and making a meaningful difference with each and every individual. A solution-focused trainer will bring this stance into the classroom, social media, etc., and genuinely honor each person, even during disagreements. Calling a person out and shame-based interactions are not solution-focused. Other models and points of view are always respected as the trainer helps the learners to understand how SFBT is different from other approaches. This is a "yes/and" approach, and this is always modeled in every interaction both in and outside of client sessions. This not-knowing, respectful, and curious stance extends to all people (not just clients). Ideally trainings will be live (not prerecorded) and small enough groups to encourage active participation from the learners. A SFBT trainer does not "lecture," but utilizes Solution-Focused teaching methods of collaboration and discussion.

How is your Solution-Focused Certification program different from others?

Some organizations use terms such as "certification" synonymously with terms such as "certificate of completion." Be careful. These are very different things. A certificate of completion is something you receive when you complete the content of a course. This is very different from becoming certified or earning certification in Solution-Focused Brief Practice. Certification means that you have demonstrated the knowledge and skills necessary to proficiently use Solution-Focused Practice. In order to reach this level of competency in this model, live, interactive training, ongoing coaching, and practice provided in small-group or individual learning settings are required. In addition, like any new language, learning this model takes time. One will not become proficient for certification following an intensive training. While small-group, live, week-long intensives such as our own Summer Intensive are very helpful in learning Solution-Focused Practice, they alone are not sufficient for certification.

While some organizations provide internal certification only on their own unique adaptation of the model, we believe it is important to adhere to external competency standards. Because of this, we belong to the International Alliance of Solution-Focused Teaching Institutes (IASTI). This international organization has determined the level of competency needed to demonstrate Solution-Focused certification proficiency for three levels (Practitioner, Advanced, and Master). We work with our partnering institutes to continually review and improve certification standards. We are also held to these high standards by our fellow institutes. In addition, all of our training and certification are recognized and honored by all other IASTI institutes around the world.

What’s important for me to know when choosing a good solution-focused trainer or consultant?

First, it is important to know what your goal is in seeking these services. How would you know the trainer had done a good job? What would let you know that the training made a difference? If you are seeking consultation or on-site training, make sure and talk to the trainer prior to hiring them. Are they willing to design a training based on your specific goals/needs? Are they listening to you and curious about who you are and what’s important to you? A good solution-focused trainer uses these same solution-focused principles and way of working while teaching these skills to others.

Second, chose a trainer or consultant who has experience helping people obtain outcomes that are similar to your own goals. For example, if you work in a publicly funded agency setting, I suggest hiring a trainer who is experienced working and using solution-focused practice in such a setting. In addition, look for someone who will use live demonstrations with participants and hands on teaching methods rather than videos and static teaching approaches. Solution-Focused Brief Therapy is something that participants need to experience. It looks and sounds overly simple, and a good trainer will welcome impromptu role plays and “what if . . . s.” These are necessary in order to help participants see how this way of working can be effective with the toughest clients.

Third, make sure that the trainer/consultant believes and can clearly explain how and why this approach can work with the toughest client. If the trainer says that this approach will not work with a certain population or without their modifications, walk away. While a good solution-focused trainer believes that other methods and approaches can be very effective with clients, they will also believe SFBT will work just as effectively. However, most importantly . . . they can show you how it can work (through impromptu demonstration) and then explain the basic principles behind the change they demonstrate.

Fourth, online training can be very effective. However, steer clear of large or pre-recorded webinars. With today's technology, interactive platforms such as Zoom, make it possible to provide discussion-based training that includes live demonstrations and breakout practice sessions. Small group trainings (35 max) in which participants are encouraged to speak up and directly interact with the trainer are ideal. Breakout practice sessions and live discussions are the hallmark of good solution-focused learning.

Lastly, make sure the trainer/consultant is open to continued contact and resources once the training is over. Learning SFBT is a process, and on-going questions come up. A good trainer wants to stay in contact and support those in the learning process.

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