First We Read, Then We Act*

by Guy Shennan and Marc Gardiner

The Solution-Focused Collective Reading Group first met early this year and got off to a radical start. Actually, it had been conceived in a radical fashion the previous September, when we presented at an event in Dublin called ‘Advocates and Allies’, organised by the Irish Association of Social Workers. Marc talked about Hilary Cottam’s book, Radical Help, while Guy called his presentation A Radical Focus on Hope. One of the pieces of reading that Guy drew on was ‘Towards a Paradigm for Radical Practice’, a chapter by Peter Leonard in the classic 1975 text, Radical Social Work.

It was actually that chapter that Guy first envisaged reading and discussing together with collective-minded colleagues – searching together for a paradigm for radical solution-focused practice perhaps? – but we decided we would start with something a bit more up-to-date, and a whole book too. That’s what found about ten of us in a (pre-Covid) collective Zoom meeting one winter evening, discussing Radical Help. It wasn’t evening for everyone, as we had an international gathering, with colleagues from Canada, Germany and Ireland, as well as from the UK. We’ve maintained this international flavour ever since, and have had people join from the US, Ghana and probably more countries besides.

We have met six times so far, with one more meeting to organise in 2020 (we meet roughly once every 6 weeks). We usually meet for about an hour and a half, and the discussion is sometimes structured by one or more questions that the person who suggested the reading poses – and sometimes it’s a bit more free-flowing (we hope it always flows to some extent!). Here are the questions Marc gave us for the first meeting, as one of the examples of more structured discussion:

  1. Radical Help/SF – fit, re principles & approach?
  2. How might SF enhance RH; RH enhance SF?
  3. What do you like best? What resonates most for you?
  4. Implications – especially for the SF Collective/SF for social action ideas & initiatives?

These led to such a great discussion that we were later inspired to offer a book review of Radical Help for the revamped Journal of Solution-Focused Practices, and were delighted when this was accepted. So if you are interested in some of our responses to these questions, you could read our review (given that this wonderful journal is now online with open access).

Since then we have discussed collective narrative practice, possibilities for adding ‘problem talk’ into or alongside solution-focused practice, solution-focused work with migrants, asylum-seekers and refugees, asset-based community development, and a chapter from Richard Rorty’s book, Philosophy and Social Hope. While we have usually focused on texts – as the name ‘reading group’ suggests – we have also watched videos, for example the one of David Denborough on the webpage of the Dulwich Centre website setting out his project, Can narrative practices contribute to ‘social movement’?

The shortest read so far has been four paragraphs from Psychotherapy and Society, a 1997 book by the English clinical psychologist, David Pilgrim. These begin with the provocative observation that therapists “may ignore the non-therapeutic value of talk”. Pilgrim illustrates this somewhat caustically with the example that “when and if psychotherapists get around to seeing poor non-fee-paying clients they are in a position to bear witness to narratives of oppression”. However, others, for example TV documentary makers, tend to do this job better. This was a rich discussion, which took place before the explosion of protest after the murder of George Floyd. As solution-focused practitioners wonder how best to respond to and engage with Black Lives Matter and other anti-racist action, this suggests one line to explore, as nothing about “bearing witness” to racism suggests it would be incongruent with a solution-focused approach working in parallel.

Two texts were considered in the discussion on SF work with immigrants, asylum-seekers and refugees, ‘Tasteful Solutions: Solution-focused work with groups of immigrants’, by Arild Aambo, and ‘Seeking Asylums and Finding Miracles’ by Sarah Wilshaw and SF Collective founder-member, Steve Freeman. Given Arild Aambo’s use of Paulo Freire, and Steve’s skills at creating acronyms to follow the EARS of Insoo Kim Berg, Brian Jennings posed some wonderful questions that connected the two papers, the first being:

  • In what ways might EARS and Noticing GEMS constitute a ‘liberating’ dialogue’?

Another discussion was on a very accessible introduction to Asset-Based Community Development, written by John McKnight and Cormac Russell. This lays out the core principles and elements of the ABCD approach, which we believed has a lot to offer to SF practitioners looking to develop a community orientation – and we think that our skills in asking questions and developing conversations have much to offer to ABCD people too.

This is something we think the reading group has been great in doing; finding texts and other material that lead to discussions about how SF can be enhanced by other approaches and traditions, and how we as SF practitioners can add to what others are doing too. Reading and talking can be a way of finding connections, and connecting to a wider world beyond SF practice is one thing that the SF Collective is about.

Our most recent discussion was more theoretical, and had perhaps the largest attendance yet, as we discussed ‘Truth without Correspondence to Reality’, a chapter in Richard Rorty’s collection of essays, Philosophy and Social Hope. This was one of three chapters in a section of the book called ‘Hope in Place of Knowledge: a version of pragmatism’. It was a vigorous discussion, as Rorty’s views on truth were not to the taste of all, but there was support for the view that pragmatism has some-thing to offer solution-focused practitioners. Another question to consider is whether it has something to offer solution-focused social action too. We suspect it does, and will be investigating further.

The meetings are open to anyone with an interest in SF and in the aims of the SF Collective’s manifesto. If you are interested, drop us a line, making sure to put Reading Group in the subject header of your email. We would love to have you join us!

* A paraphrase of a comment by Ralph Waldo Emerson: ‘First we read, then we write’

A mind-expanding exercise that expanded around the world

by Guy Shennan

The first in a series of blog posts that explores the theme:

What might collective solution-focused practices for social change look like?

This post shows how a little idea – an exercise that nine people took part in that lasted only a few minutes at the beginning of a medical teaching day – has the potential for growing and encompassing many social, political and national contexts.

I was on my way to gym on Thursday morning last week, when I received a text from George, asking me if I could come up with an opening mind-expanding exercise for the day’s session. I said I would have a think while on the cross trainer.

George is a GP I work with one day each fortnight, when a group of seven graduate medical students come to his surgery for their Medicine in Society module. We focus on a particular topic each week, and on this day it was to be mental health.

I remembered a talk I had given a couple of months ago, in which I had shared some thoughts about how solution-focused practices might enter a more social arena, and suggested that we could facilitate public conversations, perhaps with a question like,  “Suppose we woke up tomorrow to a world that was socially just, what would we notice?”

This seemed to be an opportunity for a question of this type, and the exercise took shape as I went to work on my physical exercises.

An hour or so later, as the nine of us sat in our customary circle, I asked if everyone knew the game, ‘I went to market’, when the person who starts says “I went to market, and bought …” and adds something they bought, some apples, say, and then the next person says, ‘‘I went to market, and bought some apples and…” and adds what they bought, and so on. Of course everyone had, so I explained we were going to play a version of this, and wrote the amended opening on the white board:

“If I woke up tomorrow to a world whose conditions were just right for good mental health, I would notice…”

And so we went round, with just the smallest of interventions from me to encourage people not to paraphrase previous responses, but to echo them closely – after all if someone went to market wanting to buy some apples, it wouldn’t do to generalise this to buying some fruit, otherwise someone might come back with some oranges.

Michael was the ninth to go, and he must have been listening closely, for he was able to recount what we would all notice. And following the lead of George, whose go it had been just before him, he nicely changed the “I” to “we”:

“If we woke up tomorrow to a world whose conditions were just right for good mental health, we would notice less stigma towards mental health, more freedom to talk about mental health together, better social services and housing, geared towards alleviating bad mental health, more green spaces, less pressure to be a certain way, kindness on the streets, less pressure from social media, and a world where we listened to each other, and maybe a better education in terms of recreational drugs”.

As George said afterwards, as well as beginning our day on mental health by describing part of a context which would support the mental health of us all, it was also an exercise that required us to listen to each other – given that we had to repeat what each person before us had said – and this was one of the conditions for good mental health that was on our list.

So that was Thursday.

The flexibility and applicability of a question like this showed themselves the next day, when Marcos, a solution-focused psychologist from Bolivia, contacted me on Messenger. He told me that later that day he was to participate in a public conversation, with lawyers and psychologists, and that he would be talking about solution-focused mediation, for national reconciliation. The event had been organised by university students interested in political psychology.

This was to follow a month of unrest and terror, with looting and deaths on both sides, during which time Marcos’s personal involvement had included being on a roadblock defending his neighbourhood. The attacks had been at night, and it was only now he could sleep well.

Marcos apologised (unnecessarily) for contacting me only a few hours before the event, but it was only now that things were being organised again since the end of the immediate conflicts. He wondered if I had any suggestions for what he could share with his fellow Bolivians.

As it was fresh in my mind, I shared with Marcos the exercise I had done with the medical students the previous day, and said that even if this wouldn’t fit into what he was doing, I hoped it might trigger some ideas.

I wondered whether Marcos could somehow ask a question, or encourage others to ask a question, like –

“If we woke up tomorrow morning, to a country where there had been national reconciliation, what would we notice?”

– and somehow adding this into the public conversation, people taking it in turns in asking and answering it perhaps.

As Marcos had also written “everything here has just begun to organise since the end of the conflicts”, I also wondered whether he could ask “How have we managed to begin to organise again?”

And, “Since we have begun to organise, what tiny signs of hope have we noticed?”

In his messages to me following the event at his university, which had been attended by about 50 people, students, academics and the general public, Marcos wrote:

I am very happy for the questions you shared with me. I could use them at the end of the conversation, I was very curious to know what would happen. The experience of practising SFBT is something different. I really enjoyed watching the public assemble their  favourite future. These questions allowed in a short time to generate a positive climate of hope. I am more sure of the great potential of SF in my country.

I talked a little about the solution-focused approach and then used the question: What would be the first sign you would see if there was already national reconciliation? and then according to the sequence that you suggested. The students had great ideas and for me it was interesting to ask them to use “we” at the end. I was the only exhibitor who interacted in this way with the public.

The students described the experience as a chain of ideas that is growing. It is incredible how things tend to be polarised and although the intention is not that, we end up polarising ideas. But with this question we were talking about a common good, and it was not necessary to defend an opinion, it was more important to contribute to the chain of ideas.

Interesting things happened. For example, one of the students said she would see more understanding, but that was very difficult to happen. Then I asked her if she ever saw a sign of understanding in the country and she replied, yes –  when we qualified for the World Cup. We didn’t have more time to talk about it but we could definitely have talked for hours on the subject with the other students.

…Now I’m thinking of organising something with my group of enthusiastic SFBT students for national reconciliation, but I still don’t know how…

Not knowing is a creative place to be, especially sharing our “not knowing” together, and I am excited about the possibilities here, and about learning from what Marcos and his students do in Bolivia, and being able to apply this to my work with students and others here in London.


I love working with George, who I first came across via an article in Context magazine in 1999 – ‘Using solution focused therapy in the GP consultation’. When I met him for the first time in person many years later, about training Tower Hamlets GPs in SF, I was pleased to be able to give him a photocopy of his article, which he had mislaid. I can thoroughly recommend another article, featuring George and other socially conscious doctors, in the New Statesman magazine – Towards Eternal Winter – Can the NHS Survive?