Solution-focussed conversations: a workshop

Yesterday, I attended an internal development workshop led by Carole Pemberton. A big part of my new role involves meeting and having conversations with people. Sometimes this is just to get to know them and find out what they do and what sorts of research-related things are going on in the faculty/school, but sometimes (quite often) we talk to try and find out how I can help them. Even if the conversation doesn’t start out as a ‘problem-solving’ conversation it can often turn into one, particularly once people start talking about things they don’t like, or would like to change (which happens quite a lot!). I think I’m probably an introvert (no kidding),  so this aspect of my work can be challenging and sometimes scary.


Image by Joe Wolf via Flickr (CC-BY-ND 2.0)

However, on the whole, it’s very interesting and I’m enjoying it. It’s nice to get out and about on campus and meet new people and feel like I’m becoming more involved and at home in the wider university, if only in small ways for now.

My role is to support people with research/scholarly communications so I need to be solutions-focussed in my conversations with them. There’s always a danger of a lot of complaining about things but not much being done to sort them out – in general, higher education institutions tend to be great at talking about problems but not very good at actually solving them. I learned yesterday that this is because we (HE staff) tend to be content (information)-focussed – we like information and asking questions and gathering more information because it makes us feel clever [idea that knowledge=power?] – because we are clever (apparently).


And of course it’s often easier to talk about problems than it is to deal with them – information gathering during a conversation is really just another form of procrastination! [Another interesting things I learned yesterday was that people who are grandiose and talk down to people they consider to be ‘beneath’ them are doing this out of anxiety – their place in the (possibly perceived) hierarchy is their safe space.]

So what is a solutions-focussed conversation? Mainly, it comes down to good listening and asking the right questions. These should be ‘what’, ‘where’, ‘when’ and ‘how’ questions, but, interestingly, not ‘why’. Again as ‘clever’ people, we like to know why, but knowing why something is happening/has happened doesn’t actually help to find a solution to the problem. In a solutions-focussed conversation it’s not about exploring feelings about the problem, but finding a solution to it. This was quite difficult for me get to grips with, because I’m used to counselling conversations, where people are always asking ‘how does this make you feel’ (which I hate, btw). [Another interesting point, if you want to find out how someone who doesn’t like talking about their feelings feels about something you should ask them what they think about it instead].

Questions should only be asked to help the other person’s thinking not to feed your curiosity

Here are some examples of good questions to use in solutions-focussed conversations:

  • What is important to you in your work right now?
  • How often does this problem happen?
  • What have you done to improve things?
  • What is the biggest obstacle you are facing?
  • What’s the worst that could happen?
  • So what?
  • What would be the most useful thing you/we could do?
  • Who else can help?
  • How have you solved problems like this before?
  • What are you going to do about it in the next week?

Not Listening by LadyJillybean via Flickr (CC-BY-ND 2.0)

What is good listening? Well, things like good (appropriate) eye contact, making supporting noises/actions so the person knows you’re listening (must be genuine!), repeating information back to make sure you’ve understood it, and also:

  • Using the other person’s language (e.g. if they say it’s a nightmare, say it’s a nightmare, not that it’s bad)
  • Remove distractions
  • Look involved
  • Slow down so you can pay proper attention
  • Be aware of the other person’s changing emotions during the conversation – when do they become more animated/excited/sad/bored
  • Removing yourself – i.e. not thinking about yourself and what you’re going to say next

Good listening is getting yourself out of the way

At the end of the conversation, you should have some sort of plan of how to tackle the problem. You don’t need to have a plan to totally solve it, but you should have at least the first step in mind. As with many things (e.g. cake) it is easier to tackle problems in small stages.


Cake by Josh Lowesohn via Flickr (CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0)

For example, you might not be able go straight in to having a conversation with someone you don’t like, but you might be able to go in and say hello or even just try to think about them in a more positive light. One (more) thing I found useful (although thankfully it doesn’t really apply to me) was the idea that if you really can’t get on with someone in any other way you can still agree on some common ground, even if it’s very general (e.g. you want to make things better for students).

As well as the actual conversation part of solution-focussed conversations, we talked about ‘peripheral’ but essential and very relevant things like ‘presence’. It sounds airy-fairy, but how you present yourself in terms of your physical presence can have a big effect on people’s attitudes towards you – and also on how you perceive yourself. Think of peacocks. We discussed this TED talk by Amy Cuddy:

It may not be as scientific as she claims, but we tried it in the workshop and just the fact that it makes you stand up straighter and therefore breathe more easily must be of some benefit, I would have thought. Perhaps it’s just psychosomatic, but I’m not sure that matters if it works for people.

In summary, solution-focussed conversations follow the coaching cycle:

  1. Defining the topic/goal
  2. Listening, asking the right questions, finding options
  3. Agreeing actions (must be willing to actually do them), even very small things.

A symbolic picture of an acorn by knitsteel via Flickr (CC-BY-SA 2.0)


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