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’