As professionals in helping positions such as social workers, counsellors and teachers, we have a duty to think carefully about the language we use with clients, families and young people. It is a privileged position to be able to speak into someone else’s’ life, however briefly, and as such we must do everything possible to ensure our words are a help and not a hindrance. One common pitfall that can often shape conversations in an unhelpful way, is our reliance upon deficit models for measuring outcomes. In simple terms, looking to see how bad something is. Solution Focused Practice is not unique in its call to look instead for signs of progress, strengths and resources, however is certainly unique in its insistence and perseverance to do so.
To illustrate this point practically I want to share thoughts from a recent TAF (Team Around the Family) meeting for a young man, Aiden, whom I had been conducting Solution Focused Sessions with. Gathered around the table at this meeting were Aiden’s parents, his Head of Year and the Pastoral Lead from his school. What was fascinating to me about this meeting, was how despite Aiden having made significant improvements, the presence of a deficit model framework, in this instance ‘Behaviour Logs’, meant that the conversation turned from praise to problem.
Half way through the meeting, which up until this point had been full of positives, the Head of Year pulled out some documents. On the documents were a long, detailed list of Aiden’s behaviour logs, both historical and recent. The Head of Year’s honest intention in doing this, was to demonstrate and highlight to Aiden and his parents, how he had shown an improvement in school behaviour. You see, Aiden had only received 11 behaviour logs in the Spring term, compared to 19 in the Autumn term. The very nature of framing the conversation within a deficit model however, soon caused difficulties.
You see, rather than focusing on the reduction in behaviour logs, conversation quickly turned to negative questioning about the individual behaviour log incidents: Why didn’t you complete that piece of homework? Why were you late on that day? You lost your PE kit again! How many times do we have to go over this? In an instant, talk had shifted from being about the student who was improving their behaviour and succeeding at school, to the one who is unreliable, forgetful and a general nuisance.
This is important. Why? Because of the messages it sends to the young person in question. For Aiden, the intention had been to reinforce his improvements and the belief that he is a student who can achieve; instead, thanks to the deficit model of behaviour logs, he began to have other messages reinforced, ones that were not as helpful to positive change. As long as we adopt a deficit model in our work, meaning that our outcome is for our client to be doing less of something bad, then we are far less likely to see a client develop and progress to be detached from that issue. For as long as their success is measured by doing less of that something bad, they will never be able to shake it off entirely, every meeting will contain conversation about it, and they will be forever entangled to it.
So if you’re reading this, here is my suggestion: Reflect on whether your conversations with clients are overly reliant on talk about them doing less of something negative, if they are, start to talk with them instead about doing more things that are positive.
This can be summarized perfectly by the final comments I observed at Aiden’s TAF Meeting. As the conversation drew to a close, Aiden’s parents and his Head of Year looked at each other, and referring to the reduction in behavioural issues, stated that they had grown used to their regular phone calls home and would miss them. I wonder, would it be so bad to have a phone call about a success?