In this post, Rayya Ghul, University Lead for the Edinburgh Teaching Award, draws from solution-focused practice to suggest some useful questions we could ask ourselves to better navigate times of distress…
This is a question often used by solution-focused practitioners when supporting people who are going through or anticipating a difficult time or situation. It’s a powerful tool to help people remember their strengths, resources and capabilities when faced with challenge and uncertainty.
Solution-focused practice was developed in the last quarter of the twenty-first century by therapists and social workers who were interested in the power of language and conversation as a way of creating change. Most therapeutic interventions use talking but generally use it to ask questions that reflect their theories about why people find themselves unable to cope or becoming unwell. These theories tend to focus on some kind of deficit within the person that needs to be identified and corrected. In contrast, solution-focused practitioners regard people as inherently resourceful and while acknowledging that people’s distress is real, it does not seek to find ‘what’s wrong’. Instead, it harnesses the natural power of conversation to change perceptions and sense of hopefulness by focusing people on outcomes, on present and past strengths and on the most useful steps forwards
Solution focus has long since escaped from its origins within therapy and social care and is now used almost everywhere where there are people coming together to work through difficult situations or supporting each other. In higher education, its application to personal tutoring and PhD supervision is growing and it has also been used to create a positive approach to peer support for students. Research has shown that using solution focused questions increases hope and positive feelings, actively reduces negative feelings, increases self-efficacy and the ability to take action more than talking to people about their problems.
Now is definitely a time of challenge and uncertainty. Solution focus could help us and others to navigate the coming months, fostering hope and developing strategies for living through a pandemic. Here are some tips for how you can use some solution-focused strategies and questions.
What matters to me?
Thinking about what you want from the future can be really good at keeping you on track and motivated. Sometimes, our idea of what we want can be vague or based on what we think we should want, rather than our own ideas. To become clearer, these questions can help:
- What are my best hopes for this semester?
- What will I be really pleased to have achieved?
- What difference will it make to me?
- What difference will it make to others?
Find what works and do more of it
This is probably the core of solution focus and many techniques are designed to elicit or develop personal strategies. Some of the questions you can ask are:
- What’s working right now?
- What worked in the past that I could do again now?
- Experiment – What could I try out?
- What’s not working? – stop doing it!
What am I like at my best?
Even when things are really bad, we can still be at our best in a difficult situation. It might not look like being at our best when things are easy, but people are remarkably adaptable, creative and resourceful even in the harshest situations and environments. This question is a good one to counteract those feelings of being overwhelmed and inadequate. Some questions might be:
- What will I be pleased to have achieved by the end of today? (in the morning)
- What am I pleased to have achieved today? (at the end of the day)
- What have I learned about what works for me?
- What would my parents/best friends say about what I’m like at my best?
What can I do right now?
When we are faced with overwhelming challenge and uncertainty, it’s often hard to make decisions and create structure. We don’t always know where to start. That’s why it’s worth answering some of the preceding questions before taking action. Working out what matters to you and how you’ll recognise success creates a kind of ‘compass’ towards which you can orient yourself (this is especially useful when things go wrong or you face unexpected obstacles). Finding out what works creates efficiency, less time-wasting. Remembering what you’re like at your best creates a sense of agency and resilience. In that context, determining what to do next becomes easier and easier.
- What small step can I take right now?
- What difference could it make?
The key here is to start small and stay in an experimental mindset. Goals and objectives are bigger things and subject to the possibility of failure. Small, experimental steps are low stakes and for learning what works for you. Remember, however difficult and overwhelming things are, there is always something small you can do.
These questions can be adapted and used to set a tone of confidence in others. For example:
- at the beginning of an online teaching session (or team meeting) you can get people to share one thing they have been proud to achieve that day into the chatbox.
- You can set up a thread in a discussion board where students can post the answer to the question, ‘What are you good at (that could help another student)?’.
- If someone is complaining of feeling stuck, ask them ‘how will you know when things are beginning to move in the right direction?’
- Use Padlet to generate tips for what works for studying/working during Covid.
- If someone is feeling stressed and overwhelmed, gently ask them how they would like things to be instead and explore possible small steps they could take right now.
- Ghul, R (2014) The Power of the Next Small Step. POD: The Connie Institute
- Grant, A. (2012) Making Positive Change: A Randomized Study Comparing Solution-Focused vs. Problem-Focused Coaching Questions. Journal of Systemic Therapies, 31 (2), pp. 21–35
- Using solution-focused coaching with students (Chapter 6) in Effective Personal Tutoring in Higher Education by: Lochtie, McIntosh, Stork and Walker
- IAD practical strategies for… Solution Focus for Personal Tutors (workshop to be scheduled in November)
Rayya is a National Teaching Fellow and lecturer in University Learning and Teaching. She is based in the Institute for Academic Development where she is the University Lead for the Edinburgh Teaching Award and convenes the course on Accessible and Inclusive Learning. Rayya runs Practical Strategies sessions on embedding access and inclusion into the curriculum and also ways to apply a solution focused approach to supporting students in a variety of roles.