Solution-Focused Interviewing

This post is part of my 100-question challenge, where I review work from researchers, coaches and counselors to identify questions that support participants to reflect and find solutions to their problems. Learn more about this challenge here. These are questions 1-7.

I just finished reading the book “Solution-Focused Interviewing: Applying Positive Psychology – A manual for practitioners” by Ronald E. Warner. The book is an amazing resource for health practitioners, such as doctors, therapists, and social workers, to empower clients to find solutions to their problems by focusing on their strengths. It is also very useful for researchers seeking to employ more strength-based and solution-focused questions in their research approach.

Like transformative interviews, this approach assumes that participants are experts in their own lives and have strengths and resources to solve their problems. The interviewer’s role is to help the participants become aware of these strengths and resources to be empowered to take action.

A fundamental paradigm shift is to move away from “problem-talk.” This approach rejects the assumption that in order to find a solution, we need to understand the problem better. Instead, it shifts the focus to what is wanted or desired in order to engage in a solution-talk.

Warner proposes a tri-phase model for the solution-building process. The first phase involves establishing rapport with the client/participant, which he calls the empathy phase. This stage involves active listening and reflecting skills with the purpose of developing trust and demonstrating that the participant’s feelings are acknowledged and validated. However, he maintains it is not desirable to further explore or expand on these negative feelings.

A second phase, the goal-setting phase, involves defining a goal – what does the client want to happen. Some helpful questions at this stage that translate well to a research environment may be:

  • What would you like to change about this?
  • What would be helpful for us to talk about now?

As I have learned in my own interviewing, defining a goal is harder than it seems. Warner suggests that a well-formed solution-focused goal has three characteristics:

  • The goal needs to be broken down into small achievable steps
  • Goals need to be expressed in behavioral terms – they need to clearly articulate a doing for the person
  • Goals need to be expressed in positive terms – what is wanted more of, not what is not wanted (I want to increase my fitness as opposed to I want to lose weight)

At this stage, it is also helpful to understand the importance of this goal or desire and how motivated they feel to pursue it. Some useful questions may be:

  • What difference will reaching this goal make in your life?
  • How important is this goal to you? On a scale of 1 to 10, where 1 represents minimum importance, and 10 represents great importance, what number would you assign this goal? How did you get to that number?

The third phase of this model, the goal-striving phase, is focused on determining how the goal can be achieved. At this point, the participant begins to consider other ways of approaching their situation that may be more beneficial. Several questions can be helpful here:

  • The exception to the problem: Tell me about a time when the problem did not happen? What was different then? What did you do or think differently?
  • Preferred future: these questions explore how things will be different when the problem is solved. When this issue is resolved, how will your situation be better for you? Suppose tonight, when you went to sleep, a miracle happens, and this problem is solved. When you wake up tomorrow morning, what would be different? How would you be different?
  • Coping questions: how have you managed to cope with this problem as long as you have? What have you done to keep this situation from getting worst?

In a research context, it may be that some problem-talk is necessary to advance the research goals of the study. However, moving beyond the discussion of the problem and engaging in a solution-building conversation is likely to benefit research participants and facilitate the identification of broad solutions.

Warner cautions to the importance of giving participants time to consider these questions. Answering solution-focused questions require reflective thought as we are asking participants to think about their problems in different ways. That means developing comfort with silence and reassuring participants that it is okay to take time to think things through before responding.

I strongly recommend reading the book and keeping it close by for ideas of questions. For now, I have identified seven main types of questions that can help researchers move beyond the problem-talk into a solution-focused mindset.

How motivated are you to implement solution-focused questions in your research?