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Social exclusion – What are you hoping for?

A solution-focused approach to social exclusion is paying off for charity Caer Las and its service users. Guy Shennan explains

Frank* telephoned one day in some distress. He was struggling with alcohol dependency and had been receiving a service from Caer las for some time. His benefits had been interrupted and his anger at the dwp spilled over into some aggressive shouting down the phone.

The worker, who had begun to apply a solution-focused approach in his work, asked, What are you hoping for from phoning us about this? This seemed to stop Frank in his tracks, his first response being to say that no one had ever asked him that question before. The conversation rapidly de-escalated as Frank became quieter, possibly because the type of question he had been asked often calls for some hard thinking. In this case it led to Frank recognising what Caer Las had done to date, and accepting what was being suggested now, that he obtain a food parcel and wait on the DWP’s timescales.

Asking someone what they want in a particular situation is the starting point for any solution-focused piece of work. As the Caer Las staff have been finding, this can be remarkably effective in not getting bogged down in the past and things that can’t be changed, but encouraging someone to look forward instead to what is possible.

Caer Las

Caer Las Cymru is a Welsh charity which tackles social exclusion by working with people whose lives can be traumatised by homelessness, poverty, mental ill health or substance misuse. Services include accommodation, support, advice, and advocacy, as well as training and learning opportunities. Through this provision, Caer Las aims to support people to gain the confidence they need to build the life they want. It has been incorporating a solution- focused approach into its work for the past two to three years.

Solution-focused practice

Originally developed in the world of therapy, solution-focused practice is now being applied in virtually every context where people talk together to help change happen. One of the reasons for its increasing popularity is that it is conceptually simple – not the same as saying easy to apply – and comprised of only a small number of main activities.

The starting point, as we saw above, is not to focus on and assess the problem, as in many therapeutic approaches, but to look instead at what is wanted. Asking a service user about their hopes from their involvement with a helping agency at the outset is as important as a taxi driver asking the person who has flagged down the cab where they want to go. The journey can’t begin without an answer! From this point onwards, the focus is very much on difference, on what would be different for people if they were making the moves forward they wished for, and

on the positive differences they are already managing to make in their lives. And the practitioner’s central task is to assist the service user in describing these differences in as much rich, concrete detail as possible.

Solution focus at Caer Las

On a global scale, the evidence base for the effectiveness of these simple activities is building all the time (Franklin et al, 2012; Gingerich & Peterson, 2013). Locally, solution-focused practice has made a sizeable difference for Caer Las. This is perhaps unsurprising, as the tools of soution-focused practice have been designed according to principles that match exactly the agency’s core values, the first of which is: ‘We believe that everyone has strengths and resources to create their own solutions and build a better life.’

The effect of these tools has been to empower the Caer Las staff and, crucially, to deliver better and more sustainable outcomes for its service users. We have seen how this can happen in a short telephone conversation, so let’s look now at a piece of solution-focused work that lasted for several months.

Florence, aged 20, had presented as homeless to the local authority and Caer Las had helped to house her in shared accommodation. Grant offered some housing support, and on first meeting Florence, he heard lots of details about her difficult past. Adopted at the age of eight, she had been treated poorly by her adoptive parents, who she was now estranged from, and had a difficult and at times violent relationship with her biological mother, who she had resumed contact with as an adult. She also described problems with drug use, had been diagnosed with depression and anxiety, and often didn’t go out for days on end.

Grant was concerned about Florence, as she became upset during this first visit, sitting in a dark room with the curtains drawn. He didn’t know what to do with all the information she had given him, but the solution-focused approach gave him an alternative way in. He asked her, ‘What do you want to achieve from my support visits?’ Florence’s answer, that she wanted to feel normal, gave them something to look towards, rather than beginning their work together with the daunting task of looking only down and back at her past and present difficulties.

He visited weekly, using solution- focused questions that gradually helped Florence to develop an increasing sense of her abilities. At first, he went very slowly, focusing simply on the ability Florence was showing in getting through the day, and how she was doing this in a safe way (she had tried to commit suicide as a teenager). He would also ask her how she would notice tiny signs of improvement on the following day, and she mentioned such things as showering and washing her hair. As the weeks went by, the sessions became lighter, the curtains would be open when Grant arrived, Florence’s demeanour was changing and she was talking more positively. Not only was she reporting that she had washed her hair the previous night and showered that morning, but other actions included looking in the mirror, putting on make-up, and so on. Future signs of progress began to include waking up happier and singing, and in the weeks that followed she noticed herself doing these things at times as well.

Several months later, the support came to an end, in part because Florence was now in more secure accommodation. For Grant though, ‘The main reason was her improved emotional condition. This improvement had a dramatic increase in her confidence relating to managing her tenancy. I was really pleased with how it all went and solution-focused played a large part in it’.

In a review before the end of the support, Florence said that what had helped her the most was Grant’s use of solution-focused questions.

Other uses

In common with many agencies, Caer Las workers hold regular reviews with their service users, to keep the work on track. The solution-focused approach has proved helpful in these contexts, especially by the use of scaling questions. These questions are based around a 0-10 scale, where 10 represents the realisation of the service user’s hopes from the work, and 0 the furthest away from that they’ve been.

Asking where a person is on this scale is useful, because any answer above 0 means there is progress towards what’s wanted, which the worker can then be curious about, by asking a variety of potentially useful solution-focused questions. For example, in one review John placed himself at a 6, and the worker then asked, ‘What tells you you’re at 6 and not lower? What have you been noticing that’s different about yourself?’ Having heard that John was going out more and had made

a few new friends, the worker asked him next how he had managed to do this: ‘What have you done that’s helped?’ These types of questions help service users to become more aware not only of their progress but also of their own ways of achieving this and of the strengths and skills they have that underlie their constructive actions.

It has proved helpful to end reviews by asking about movement up the scale, which orients the service user and worker to signs of future progress to aim at and watch out for in the next review period: ‘What might tell you that you were moving further up the scale? What would you be doing differently?’

Colin, a member of the Caer Las management team, uses a solution- focused approach regularly in supervision. He starts by asking staff members about something they have done well in their recent work, and finds this helps to create a useful mood for the rest of the session. Scaling questions prove particularly useful, especially when someone feels stuck in their work with a service user, as they highlight progress that has been made, even in small ways, and suggest possibilities for moving forward. The approach has also been brought into group supervision and management meetings, where scaling has been used to help with the completion of collective tasks. By asking the people who rated most highly about the progress they have noticed, the whole team, including those who chose a number lower down the scale, have become more optimistic and motivated about the task being completed. The collective scale has also led to the team thinking in a more joined-up way about the next step.

Executive director Jim Bird-Waddington wants Caer Las to build on its existing practices that truly empower people and help promote their independence. He believes that the solution-focused approach has proved invaluable in this respect so

far, and has a vision that it will become the underlying base for all the agency’s interventions with its clients. It will be interesting to see what the next step in this journey will be.

Guy Shennan is an independent solution-focused consultant and trainer www.sfpractice.co.uk


• Franklin, C., Trepper, T., Gingerich, W. and McCollum, E. (eds.) (2011). Solution- focused brief therapy: A handbook of evidence-based practice. New York: Oxford University Press.

• Gingerich, W. and Peterson, L. (2013). ‘Effectiveness of solution-focused brief therapy: A systematic qualitative review of controlled outcome studies’, Research on Social Work Practice, 23, 3, 266-283.

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