Solution-focused peer support

I would like to thank Rebecca Valentine from Edinburgh University for contributing this guest posting. — David.
Rubik Cube - What's the solution?

What's the solution?

Here at the University of Edinburgh Careers Service we have regular guidance issues forums where the careers advisers get together to look at new developments and to discuss client case studies.  A while ago I was asked to facilitate a case-study forum using a solution-focused team model.

The model comes from solution focused brief therapy (SFBT), an approach I first came across during my time as a Connexions Adviser South of the border. Instead of concentrating on problems and looking to the past to see how they have come about, SFBT seeks to focus on preferred futures and how they might be realised.

One of the key principles of SFBT is that the client and helper develop a collaborative partnership in which the helper encourages their client to find their own resources and solutions to tackle the problem. Central to SFBT is the belief that the client already has the solutions; they just need help to discover them. It’s also about identifying small steps that can be taken; big problems do not always need a big solution. SFBT often involves the client making small changes in their lives that can have big consequences.

Since being introduced to SFBT, I have continued to use some of the core techniques in my one-to-one practice and I find it to be a particularly useful approach with clients who present as overly negative, or when the discussion gets bogged down in “problem talk”.

A few years ago Bristol Solutions Group developed a reflective practice team model based on the principles of SFBT (see O’Connell & Palmer 2003 for details). It’s this model that I encountered during my time at Connexions. I saw it used very effectively on a number of occasions in multi-agency forums where professionals would come together to discuss difficult cases. I discussed the format with my colleague here at Edinburgh and we decided to give it a go in one of our guidance issues forums.

Here’s an outline of the session format and I’d suggest having a look at the references below, in particular O’Connell and Palmer (2003) which provides a case study of the model in action.


  • Process manager – facilitates the session
  • Timekeeper – assists process manager in keeping the session to time
  • Presenter – practitioner who brings the case study to the session
  • Group member – everyone else taking part in the session

Session plan:

  • Introduction (1 minute) – Presenter states what they hope to get out of the session
  • Presentation (5 minutes) – Presenter outlines their case study to the group.  No interruptions or questions from group members at this stage, just listen.
  • Clarification (8 minutes) – Group Members in turn ask the Presenter questions to clarify the situation – only clarification questions are allowed here.
  • Affirmation (3 minutes) – Each Group Member in turn tells the Presenter one thing that has impressed them about the case study.
  • Reflection (10 minutes) – Group Members reflect on and discuss the case study including offering new solutions and ideas for the Presenter to use.  The Presenter does not take part in this discussion but listens and notes down anything they think useful.
  • Conclusion (3 minutes) – Presenter responds to the discussion stating what they have found useful and how they will take things forward.

I sent this format out to colleagues in advance of the forum so they’d have a chance to become familiar with it. A few colleagues got back to me with case studies and together we selected two to present in the forum: one a student attending a mock interview who had come across as rather arrogant but seemed unaware of this and the other an international student who appeared angry about the length of time she would need to spend in training for her desired career.

It was at this point that I had a bit of a crisis in confidence; would my colleagues like the model as much as I do?  Would the model work effectively in this HE context?  And perhaps most crucial for me as someone who doesn’t like having to be “strict”, would I be able to keep a group of professionals who like to talk to such a tight structure?

Reaction to the session

I needn’t have worried!  The session seemed to run well. There were a few nervous moments when I had to tell colleagues to “hold that thought, it’s questions now and reflections later…”, but it was received positively.  We had some time at the end of the session to discuss how it had gone and one colleague in particular summed it up for me by saying “Well I’m beat!  I really feel like I’ve been through what you went through in that interview!”

The session format allows you to get a sense of what the practitioner goes through in that 45 minutes and I have to take may hat off to my two colleagues who presented for their bravery in baring their souls in this forum.

For me it also highlighted the complexity of what we’re trying to do in that guidance intervention and how we sometimes beat ourselves up when we don’t sort out every single issue that the student presents us with.  One of the stages of the session I had been most worried about was affirmation. I was concerned that my colleagues might see this as irrelevant to the process.  How wrong I was!  Most said they really liked this as it helped them to put things into context.  One of the presenting practitioners said it was very reassuring to hear from others that she hadn’t done anything “wrong” in the guidance interview and that in actual fact she had dealt very well with what was quite a difficult situation.

It also seems to me to be a good mechanism for getting some feedback of the “am I doing a good job?” variety, something that doesn’t always happen when we’re tucked away in our offices and busy seeing students.  Management colleagues also liked the time focused format because it allows for that kind of feedback in a very efficient way, something that might become more of a consideration as funding cuts start to bite.

So it seemed to get the thumbs up from my colleagues (much to my relief!) but I’d be interested to get your thoughts on it.  Perhaps it is a format you’ve come across or used before?  Would you be interested in giving it a go?  What would you see as some of the benefits and possible downsides of using this model?

Further reading and more detail on the team model (if you’re interested):

  • O’Connell, B. & Palmer, S. (2003) Handbook of Solution Focused Therapy. London: Sage
    (see chapter 15 for an introduction to the team model).
  • O’Connell, B. (2005) Solution Focused Therapy, Second Edition. London: Sage
    (a good all round introduction to solution focused therapy generally and the team model in particular).
  • Iveson, C. (2002) Solution-focused brief therapy. Advannces in Psychiatric Treatment. 8, 149-157.

Related post: What might have been


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