Solution-Focused Approaches


Image adopted from here – I do not own the rights to this image.

I recently attended the Network4Careers conference at Anglia Ruskin University in Chelmsford, and one of the workshops that was held, run by Peter Beven from Northumbria University, was on ‘solution-focused approaches’. One of the key issues that I have identified with working with students is that many of them focus on either their problems or their lack of direction, rather than the solutions that could solve these problems and help them to move forward.

The idea of solution-focused approaches within IAG was developed by Insoo Kim Berg, Steve de Shazer et. al., who were heavily influenced by Milton Erickson, a psychologist and psychiatrist. The goal is to move away from a problem-based perspective to one that instead looks ahead, and it could be seen as reframing perspective. People already have the resources to solve their own problems – the advisors are there to help uncover them. Often, this approach can lead to the domino effect – people may find that focusing on solving one small problem can actually result in many others being solved as well.



There are several assumptions that are made when using this approach:

  1. The client already has the resources within them to solve the problems.
  2. Change is a constant thing.
  3. The role of the advisor is to identify and amplify change.
  4. It is not necessary to know everything about a complaint in order to resolve it.

As you can see, the last assumption may only work in some situations – because of this, it is recommended to integrate the solution-focused approach within your work, rather than use it rigidly.


Getting Started

When starting the appointment with the client, it is important to use naïve listening, and to weave their language into each sentence you respond with. When the client feels like they are being listened to, then they are more likely to cooperate. Notice the positives about the client and make sure to discuss these, and accept everything they say as valid and reasonable. This develops trust, and gives the client a safe space to talk about what they need to.

It’s also important to be listening out for both what is important to the client, and what they want different in their lives. These two things will form the basis for what actions they may need to take. In short, plan for the end from the very start – the more information you accrue, the more personalised and effective your guidance will be.


Useful Strategies

Peter demonstrated several simple strategies that can be used with the client to make the most of the appointment and get the best results:

Goal setting

Goal setting is a common way of focusing on the solution to a problem, and can really help turn abstract concepts (such as confidence) into behavioural actions (such as practicing talking on the phone). It is important to set clear, concrete, and observable goals – the concept of SMART goals can really help with this.

Problem-free talk

To avoid the problems that the client is focused on, concentrate instead on the client, as mentioned earlier. Pull resources from them, and turn the conversation to focus on the things they are doing well within their life – even if they’re small things, they still count!

The ‘miracle question’

This approach needs a set-up or lead in to avoid sounding out of place. Get the client to imagine that they wake up the next day with all their problems solved. Ask them to describe what is different – what they are doing differently, and what others might be doing differently. Once they have elaborated, ask them to think of what small steps will be a sign of them moving in the right direction.

Exception finding

For a client who is particularly problem-focused, ask them questions about their problematic situations, such as “When does this problem not happen/happen less?” and “What were you doing differently before this problem arose?” Looking from this perspective can help the client to consider actions they may not have thought about.


This is a well-known approach, where the advisor will get the client to measure change. It could be that they rate themselves that day on a scale from 1 to 10. Remember to focus on behavioural suggestions for this task – abstract ideas are not helpful as the scale will be different for each individual person.



All of the above ideas and strategies can be really useful for getting more out of your IAG appointments, and the solution-focused approach is certainly worth using as part of a holistic method. For more information, have a look at these links:

Career Guidance and Counselling

Motivational Interviewing

Erickson Coaching


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